Science for all seasons

April 28, 1995

Future research spending must give much more support to interdisciplinary work, Sir William Stewart, the Government's chief scientist, said this week.

He said a research assessment exercise more sympathetic to interdisciplinary research ought to be encouraged, and added that interdisciplinary research should be at least on an equal footing with other types of research.

Sir William's new emphasis on interdisciplinary work owes much to the outcomes of the Technology Foresight exercise, which he says will have an "impact that is as great as that of the 1993 science White Paper". The two key challenges for the Foresight initiative over the next 12 months will be to disseminate the findings and to ensure that the results begin to be implemented. "If this is only a paper exercise it will be a failure." He added that fears the Treasury may use the prioritisation at the heart of Foresight to save money were misplaced.

This week, the defence panel said over Pounds 60 million should be given to civil aerospace research and work aimed at developing technologies that find wide use in both civil and defence sectors.

The panel says such initiatives are needed because the global market for civil aerospace is likely to grow significantly over the next 20 years. Key technology priorities for the industry include materials and structures, simulation and modelling, sensor system and data processing. The energy panel called for Britain's energy sector to set its sights on global opportunities. Demand for energy in the future will be driven heavily by countries which are rapidly industrialising or have high population growth. Plant biotechnology, alternative energy sources and integrated ecosystem management for terrestrial, aquatic, coastal and oceanic systems should receive extra money according to the agriculture, natural resources and environment panel.

The sector will be influenced by national and international legislation aimed at freeing world trade as well as protecting the environment. Key science and technology priorities include environmental research programmes including modelling, risk and climate change. The Leisure and Learning panel predicts that there will be much greater convergence between the two sectors through new technology.

It says there is an over-emphasis on technological development at the expense of understanding UK "software" needs. This is especially so in the added value that can be generated via copyright material in music, broadcasting and computer software.

New technologies will enable education and training to move to greater self-learning at the expense of traditional teaching methods. The panel warns technical skills are not sufficient for economic growth. Good design and top performance across areas such as fashion, music, TV and video are also needed.

The retail and distribution panel has identified three market areas for the development of shopping in the 21st century: face to face, remote and global. The latter two will present major opportunities for, and threats to, UK retailers and distributors.

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