Research intelligence - An engineer of revival

Labour's shadow science minister wants to see the sector rise in esteem by helping to rebalance the economy. Paul Jump reports

December 9, 2010

Chi Onwurah, Labour's new spokeswoman for science and innovation, admits that her rapid rise to a shadow minister's position partly reflects the paucity of science, engineering and business experience in the party's ranks.

She has been the MP for Newcastle Central only since May.

But her degree in electrical engineering from Imperial College London and her 20 years of experience in the telecoms industry in the UK, the US, France and Nigeria won her the call to join the team shadowing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills under John Denham, the former secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Ms Onwurah, who spent six years at the telecoms regulator Ofcom after gaining an MBA from Manchester Business School, said her appointment also reflected how seriously science was taken by Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader.

As a former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Mr Miliband saw science as "a way out of the situation we are in now - (facing) a combination of the threat of climate change, (the process of) coming out of the recession and the need to rebalance the economy", she said.

There is deliberate overlap between her responsibilities and those of Gareth Thomas, Labour's shadow minister for universities and skills, and Ms Onwurah said she had focused mainly on the research budget since her appointment in October.

She expressed surprise at the science community's stance of "almost gratitude" for the settlement it received in the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was "announced almost as if it was a gift".

Pointing to the expected 44 per cent cut in the capital spending budget, she claimed that even the flat-cash settlement for revenue expenditure would translate into a real-terms reduction of "at least 10 per cent" - particularly when the extra inflationary pressures owing to the small number of suppliers of research materials and equipment are taken into account.

She credited Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, with having done "a good job of expectation management". "They did fight a battle for science, but they didn't fight hard enough and didn't get the settlement that would really have allowed science to be the engine of growth," she said, noting that other countries such as Germany, France and China were increasing their research budgets.

Despite being "an intelligent man", Mr Willetts may not be "a real champion of science" because of his commitment to a Conservative "ideology that says public sector spending is bad per se", Ms Onwurah claimed.

She said history showed that many technological breakthroughs, such as mobile phones, owe their existence to publicly funded research, and made clear her desire for universities to do more to commercialise their research.

Applied measures

However, Ms Onwurah said she did not yet feel able to pass judgement on whether a greater proportion of funds should be devoted to applied research. She believes it is necessary to avoid duplication of blue-sky research at a European and a global level, but stressed its importance and suggested that the private sector "could do more" at the applied end, pointing out that British industry's spending on research and development is low compared with that of international rivals.

By helping to rebalance the economy, science may also help to effect a "cultural rebalancing" whereby it is valued more highly by society, Ms Onwurah said. "My view of science is it exists to make society better. That can give us a more fundamental understanding of who we are, why we are here and how the Universe works, as well as providing drivers of economic growth."

But scientists must do more to reach out to society, and she hopes the impact agenda will encourage them.

Having learned through experience to be wary of "how you shift incentives", she said she thinks the impact component of the research excellence framework should be small at first. "But anyone who says nothing can measure their contribution or that they are beyond any assessment has a level of arrogance."

She also argued that the cultural rebalancing will be achieved only if more women and ethnic minorities are attracted into science and engineering. "As long as science remains an all-boys club, it will not be seen as representing the modern future of our country and will remain in the wings of our cultural life," she said.

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