Office upheaval

December 29, 1995

No sooner had Sir William Stewart vacated his post as the Government's chief scientific adviser, symbolically ending a period of big change in science policy, than another upheaval ensued, with the Department of Trade and Industry swallowing the Office of Science and Technology.

Leading scientists launched a fierce attack on the transfer of the OST from the Cabinet Office. They regarded it as a political move with no apparent rationale, and were appalled that top scientists in Government had not been consulted. Many feared the transfer meant a downgrading of science by Government and that basic science geared for the long term will be endangered through the DTI shifting cash to industry's needs. This speculation was hotly rejected by Ian Taylor, new science minister.

The shape and direction of the OST is still unclear as the DTI comes to terms with its arrival. Of particular interest will be the role of the chief scientific adviser Robert May who, on paper at least, retains all the powers of his predecessor.

During 1995, the Foresight exercise moved on to its implementation phase, a key feature of which is the Pounds 40 million Foresight Challenge research award initiative. The first bids have been lodged with the OST which should declare the winners early next year. Foresight appears to have won academics' backing and also qualified praise from the House of Commons science and technology committee.

This is more than can be said for the OST's Realising Our Potential award scheme, which aims to boost collaboration between academics and industry. It has been criticised for funding poor quality research. Both the Royal Society and the House of Commons science and technology committee have pres-sed for a brake on further funding for the scheme until it has proven itself through work already funded.

The most immediate concern for the research councils, however, is the allocation of the science budget in the new year.

The slashing of funding council cash for capital expenditure in particular could cause considerable problems in science and engineering departments.

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