Justified whingeing

March 22, 1996

SET96, national science, engineering and technology week, has seen the great and good entertained at Downing Street, lecture halls and labs thrown open to the public and academics doing their party pieces.

The Science Alliance , four unions who represent working scientists - the Association of University Teachers, Institution of Professional Managers and Scientists, Natfhe and Manufacturing Science Finance - chose SET96 to launch their discussion document Contract or Career? A career in science?(News, page 4). It contains plenty of whingeing, some justified, as The THES has repeatedly said. It also contains much invaluable information.

It comes to the only conclusion possible: young people are not silly, poor career prospects put many off (though not as many as the rhetoric suggests), the remedy lies with employers who do not invest enough in research and development, and changing this should be given priority.

The Government has been trying to do something about this. Unfortunately it has been doing the wrong thing. Instead of providing the tax breaks, and requiring the recording of R&D spending in company accounts, so that companies' shameful deficit in investment is revealed and the City of London's hard nosed, short-term calculations of advantage are altered, it has set about bribing them with already sparse taxpayers' money.

Through various schemes and wheezes, university and research council money is being made available directly or indirectly to industrial and commercial organisations which should be providing the money themselves.

Cash-strapped universities will dance to whatever tune plays. They skip now to the "applied research" tarantella. Basic research and the development of basic research scientists is suffering. We need them for the future. The sooner science is extracted from the Department for Trade and Industry and returned to the Cabinet Office, as Save British Science recommended in their manifesto published last week, the better. The current policy is going wrong. It should be reassessed.

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