Realising the dream

June 2, 1995

Human nature being what it is, we may live in a new world but we react in ways shaped by an old one. New visions may inspire but getting there is hard. So found Harold Wilson 30 years ago as his vision of the white hot technological revolution dissipated before entrenched vested interests and economic rigidities. Opportunities were not fully grasped: Wilson's penchant for manipulation led to fudges: rhetoric was not matched by a clear industrial strategy; failure deepened Britain's cynical defeatism.

When Wilson made his stirring speech, the advanced countries were for the most part still entranced by big machines and factories. His warning that advances in science, engineering and technology in areas such as computers and production technology would force massive changes in the industrial landscape worldwide, meant little then or for years after. Edward Heath's government too foundered on the deep foundations of old industrial ways. It seems, horrifyingly, that only the scorched earth policies of the 1980s could clear enough ground for regeneration.

Yet, for all the resistance and failure, some things were done right. Modern maths was introduced into schools laying foundations for computer literacy. Distance learning was pioneered at the Open University. Higher education was expanded. And now, 30 years on, the revolution is with us. The industrial landscape now boasts a multiplicity of cultures: information, service, leisure, software, biotechnology alongside heavy industry. The market was left to push up new growth where it could. But now both government and opposition are attempting to map out strategies for helping growth along.

The Department of Trade and Industry's second Competitiveness White Paper is a marked improvement on its mediocre first attempt. The Office of Science and Technology's Foresight implementation document shows much greater understanding of the complexity of the task than earlier gung-ho statements led many to fear. Taken together if they do not quite represent an industrial strategy and do signal a substantial shift from the laissez faire ideology of the 1980s.

The Foresight exercise has most relevance to university research. During the exercise science has moved up the political agenda. There is recognition that it is process and dialogue which are crucial to success. Government, industry and scientists are talking to each other. What must be avoided now is any attempt at heavy handed politicisation and direction of research. So it is important and welcome that William Stewart, the Government's chief scientific adviser, while stressing that the Foresight exercise must have a positive impact, has stated clearly that he does not want implementation of the steering group's recommendation to be forced down the throats of the research councils. He wants a dialogue with the research community. Let us hope his successor (Sir William retires next week) shares that commitment.

One of the trickiest bits of implementation will concern interdisciplinary work. The Foresight initiative has produced evidence that such work needs more support. It is not a simple matter of research councils and funding councils making more funding available for "interdisciplinary" work. The rewards of academic life attach to subjects. Interdisciplinary work does not map on to funding councils' subject orientated research assessment exercises. It is not clear how it can be peer-reviewed;. It is not even clear to which research council you turn. If such work is to be encouraged, the carrots will need rearranging.

There are other important questions on the research side. How will government departments react? As yet, alas, there is no sign of any co-ordinated policy. Eagerness to invest in research and development is not British industry's most evident characteristic. Now we have key themes and generic technologies, which will be pursued, which jettisoned? Who will decide?

Foresight has done much to create a dialogue. But the jury is out on whether there is any better chance now than in Wilson's day of achieving sufficient consensus for action.

It is also still uncomfortably unclear whether there is in all this a proper appreciation of the importance of a space to dream. Without that there will not be anything to implement.

Nor will success depend only on research. Implementation will need people who can handle new techniques and new ways of working; who can spot new opportunities; open up new markets. They will not all be scientists, technologists, high fliers.

Achieving the new education and training targets announced alongside the White Paper last week is as important to success as the health of the science base. So is sorting out the qualifications on which those targets hang. Ron Dearing is grappling with the 16 to 19-year-old bit. Trench warfare is going on over higher level vocational qualifications. All these will need to combine improved practical capabilities with the sort of slightly anarchic creativity which has been the hallmark of the higher levels of British education. Capable performance alone will not do in the world foreseen by Foresight.

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