Off-message ministers cause alarm

December 24, 2004

Leading scientists expressed fears this week that the new Education Secretary and the Higher Education Minister could hamper science in the UK because of their controversial views on stem-cell research and global warming.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, who has responsibility for a £1 billion research budget, is a devout Roman Catholic and has firm pro-life views. She opposed motions on embryo research in Parliament and is reported to have told Tony Blair that she could never support stem-cell research.

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of developmental genetics at the National Institute of Medical Research, said: "I have just been in the US and seen how confused the situation is there. If someone as senior as Ruth Kelly is not going to favour stem-cell research, we will end up with a similarly schizophrenic system in this country. It is very worrying."

Kim Howells, who took over as Higher Education Minister three months ago, has also sparked controversy with his personal stance on climate change. The Times Higher has learnt that Dr Howells told a meeting of earth scientists in October that he had "mixed thoughts" about global warming.

Most of his comments to the Earth Science Education Forum about climate change have not been included in the department's official transcript of his speech, but senior sources who attended the meeting confirmed this week that he was sceptical of the widely held scientific belief that the emission of carbon dioxide contributes to global warming.

One senior scientist who heard the speech said: "He certainly raised doubts about all the messages coming out about global warming. He questioned the common view of the scientific community that it is a serious issue and is related to man's activity."

Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, said: "Dr Howells will need to make clear his views on climate change." He added: "The scientific community would be somewhat alarmed if the Minister for Higher Education with responsibility for science disagrees with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change, not to mention with his own Government's stance."

Nancy Rothwell, Medical Research Council research professor and vice-president for research at Manchester University, said that it would worry her "a great deal" if ministers were anti stem-cell research or sought to downgrade the significance of global warming.

She said: "The views of ministers in the DFES (Department for Education and Skills) do matter as they are responsible for training the next generation of scientists. You can't have a higher education policy that is at odds with the Government's science policy."

Robert Key, the Shadow Science Minister, said: "The moral judgements that individual ministers make for religious reasons are deeply held and will influence their decisions. This is going to be a real challenge for Ruth Kelly."

Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, said: "I think it is rather good that ministers should have strongly held ethical views." But he added: "I find it extraordinary that any Government minister can have a personal view on global warming one way or the other without any scientific expertise."

A DFES spokeswoman said: "Ms Kelly set out her strategic priorities on Friday. She's not going to get into detailed policy debates at this stage - that applies to all policy."

She added that Dr Howells had made his commitment to the Government's policies on sustainable development education clear during the earth science conference. She said Dr Howells had told delegates: "Although there are conflicting arguments about how close we are to oblivion, I think there's common ground on the need for changes to be made in our approach to natural resources."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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