Sir John Cadogan, director general of the research councils has moved quickly to reassure scientists that the United Kingdom research base is secure. The transfer of the Office of Science and Technology to the Department of Trade and Industry will have no effect on its functioning, he says.
Cabinet responsibility for science, engineering and technology has been assumed by Ian Lang, Michael Heseltine's successor as President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Mr Heseltine will chair the ministerial committee on science and technology and the ministerial group on competitiveness.
Ian Taylor has been appointed as minister responsible for science and technology at the DTI. Mr Taylor's responsibilities will include the OST, technology and innovation policy, the British National Space Centre and DTI interest in multimedia and the information society.
Sir John says in a letter to research council chief executives that notwithstanding the change in ministerial responsibility, the functions, remit and staffing of the OST are unchanged, adding that the role of the Government's new chief scientific adviser, Robert May, when he assumes his position later this year, and Sir John's own remit, are also unchanged. As with his predecessor, Sir William Stewart, Professor May will have direct access to the Prime Minister. Sir John as DGRC will continue to have direct access to the Cabinet minister responsible for science, engineering and technology.
The letter says that the OST "will remain a separate organisational entity within the DTI. It will continue to be known as the OST and its function will be ringfenced from other parts of the DTI." It adds that the OST will continue its national and international co-ordinating function across the whole of Government science, engineering and technology and that the Technology Foresight programme will continue as announced. The science budget will have a separate head within the DTI's larger expenditure programme.
Tom Blundell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council says: "I see no reason why the DTI should not have the same commitment to basic and strategic research as the OST has had within the Office of Public Service and Science."
Richard Brooks, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council was also in favour, saying that his council was already involved closely with the DTI on many initiatives including the Teaching Company Scheme and the Link programme.
Geoff Robinson, director of IBM's Hursley Laboratories and ex-chief scientific adviser to the DTI says: "I genuinely think that those in academia who have supported the science White Paper policies should have no problems with this move." Dr Robinson, who is also a member of the council of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, says that since the White Paper, the DTI has built a strong complementary relationship with the OST.
However John Battle, shadow minister for science and technology slammed the move: "This decision flies in the face of all the best advice given to the Government by science and industry in recent months. The prospects for science are not good under a DTI that has recently cut more from the R&D budget than any other department."
And in a speech earlier this week, Denis Noble, secretary-general of the union of physiological sciences said that the transfer was a "betrayal" of a promise by the Prime Minister to give science a higher profile in government.