Science must be sure to secure its share of windfall

April 28, 2000

Universities are just one of the groups taking an acute interest in the Pounds 20 billion-plus windfall that chancellor Gordon Brown is about to receive by auctioning spectrum space for new-technology mobile communications.

But the House of Commons science and technology committee has made a powerful case for research to receive more cash in this summer's comprehensive spending review (page 1). It is needed to underpin "a new settlement" of the way the government does science. At the moment, says the committee, economic competitiveness is being neglected in research thinking, and despite a web of civil service and ministerial committees and meetings, the UK lacks a thought through, cross-departmental approach to research. Many departments have been cutting spending: even agriculture, where technical change and an animal health crisis make an indisputable case for more research. The suspicion is that headline increases in the science budget - mainly for the research councils - are hiding erosion elsewhere.

Although the Office of Science and Technology employs 116 people (say the MPs) to coordinate science in government, the overall effect of their labours seems to be slight. Despite being of interest to all government departments, research has not been in the forefront of joined-up government and there is no central policy governing how much is spent, on what, or why.

The committee justifyably rejects one often-proposed solution to this problem, a free-standing science ministry. The way forward is for individual departments to get better at science, not a department that would have pestering rights but no budget.

The MPs are on stickier ground when they call for a second Department of Trade and Industry minister responsible for science to join the cabinet. The rumoured second seat for the Department for Education and Employment has yet to be delivered, and favouring science would lead to every imaginable interest group demanding a cabinet minister of its own.

Instead, MPs are right to say that the next chief scientific adviser to the government needs more power, as do department chief scientists and ministers in individual departments, while the department that matters - the Treasury - has to send a strong message that it appreciates the importance of research to British economic success.

The MPs add that underproduction of high-quality science and engineering graduates is a key factor in hampering UK competitiveness. The new settlement for science must deal with this issue too - and after years of "efficiency gains", must recognise that properly funded universities are the sine qua non for more and better graduates.

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