Science cannot be the sole basis for policy, Willetts says

July 14, 2010

It is impossible to make policy solely on the basis of scientific evidence, the universities and science minister has told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

In his first appearance before the cross-party panel yesterday, David Willetts said that there was more to political decision-making than weighing up the evidence because the electorate expected governments to make speedy, predictable and value-driven decisions.

“Being a minister is more like being a GP than a consultant: you have a limited amount of information and time and can’t always wait for extra evidence from the biopsy because something needs to be done,” he said.

However, he agreed that politicians should have to explain their decisions when they go against the scientific evidence.

He said trust between ministers and expert advisers was crucial and confirmed that the government’s chief scientific adviser – and possibly he himself or even the prime minister – would get involved if relationships were “in danger of breaking down”.

Mr Willetts said the government was wary of the potential fallout of cuts to the science budget, such as making top international researchers and companies reluctant to come to the UK. If any of the committee had “robust evidence” of such effects, he said, it could feed into discussions with the Treasury ahead of October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

He went on to say that in examining a number of reports on science policy, the government had been struck by the “interesting areas of overlap” such as calls for technology institutes to facilitate the commercialisation of basic research.

However, he was unable to give any spending commitments ahead of the CSR or to confirm whether the ring-fence around the research budget would remain.

The minister also said that the difficult economic circumstances strengthened the argument for concentrating research funding in areas with the highest-rated work, “but that may involve world-class departments in universities that aren’t, in general, research-intensive,” he added.

He did not rule out exempting some subjects from the impact assessment element of the research excellence framework, but said he had been advised against such an approach “because people prefer one shared methodology”.

He also refused to rule out reorganising the research councils, although he said it was not a priority. “We are bombarded by proposals, but neither the secretary of state nor I am persuaded that there is an alternative structure that is massively superior to what we have inherited,” he said.

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