Science must still prove it is value for money

December 18, 1998

This year, British science has had the unexpected sensation of seeing real new money coming its way. This week's plethora of science announcements (pages 1 and 3), including the white paper on competitiveness, brings little new money, but does do something that might be even more welcome: highlight the central role of science and technology in this government's thinking.

Like all politicians, new Labour's leading lights are impressed by scientific knowledge and by business prowess. The chance to say that they are building the economy of the future and promoting knowledge at the same time is irresistible to them.

And there is much to applaud in this week's announcements. Despite the argument of enthusiasts for a science ministry, the white paper and the new money that has already been obtained for science suggest that science does better by having powerful bosses such as Margaret Beckett and her successor Peter Mandelson than it could by competing with them from a necessarily small power base of its own.

Also encouraging is the government's willingness to listen to scientists, typified by this week's 10 Downing Street meeting for a diverse clutch of them, and the announcement that there is to be an enhanced ministerial committee for science. This is a vital piece of cross-department machinery for garnering support and cash for new developments.

At the same time, the government seems to be grasping the limits of what it can do, such as cutting back on the number of areas backed by Foresight panels and increasing the support given to those that remain.

These developments are all positive and imaginative. They will be popular with scientists, who ought to be more cheerful than at any other Christmas they can recall. But some problem areas remain.

This week's establishment of a public consultation on the biosciences reminds us that not everyone regards the new science as a force entirely for good. And the government's unwillingness to set up the Food Standards Agency means that an important mechanism for making the best use of high-level scientific knowledge for the public good will not be available for some years.

In addition, nobody yet knows how much of the current enthusiasm for science will benefit universities. There is little here for researchers who cannot show potential economic benefit flowing from their work. Even the new lottery money coming via the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (page 32) will be distributed with industrial application as a priority. While some bodies, such as the Economic and Social Research Council, have been quick to point out the relevance of their work in solving pressing social problems, more theoretical researchers are having a harder time persuading politicians that their work matters. Ministers sometimes praise blue-skies research, but they would rather hear about spin-off companies.

In addition, the money and attention science is getting come at a price. The comprehensive spending review set targets for the establishment of new companies along with other criteria for the research community. If they are not met, science will be seen as poor value for money, and there is a risk of resources being diverted elsewhere.

And as the vast level of applications for the cash available from the Joint Infrastructure Fund shows, there is still much greater demand for science funding than any possible government is likely to meet. Research will continue to be concentrated in fewer departments and institutions, and teaching-intensive departments will be squeezed even more harshly than the winners in the present competition for research funds.

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