Science seedcorn must be nurtured

May 5, 1995

Volume I of the Foresight saga is published and we shall soon see how the Government intends to move forward. A report to be published later this month by the Office of Science and Technology, compiled by the Technology Foresight steering group under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, the Government's chief scientist, will map out how the numerous recommendations of the Technology Foresight exercise are to be implemented.

Potentially at least as important, however, are tentative plans by the Department of Trade and Industry to release its competitiveness White Paper Mark II on the same day. With any luck, having ducked out first time round, there might be something really new in the DTI's effort this time.

This double billing looks like a rather deft political move, perhaps the work of troubleshooter David Hunt. It is tailor-made to show that there are some things at least that all ministers can profess to agree upon, namely that a vigorous science, engineering and technology base is crucial for industrial strength and cultural vitality and competitiveness in all sectors of United Kingdom plc.

Of the two documents, the most immediately relevant to the academic community will be the Foresight steering group's report. While each of the 15 sector panel reports made many recommendations to enable British science and industry to take advantage of market and research opportunities over the next 10-15 years, not all will be put into practice - though a significant number are already part of research council activity.

The OST repeatedly stresses that the initiative should be seen as a dialogue between industry, Government and scientists rather than a means of "picking winners". But with the Foresight steering group given a remit to look across the work of all the panels and come up with recommendations for implementing the findings, prioritising generic technologies and the associated infrastructure, it is hard see how they will avoid appearing to do so. What people will be looking for in the report is insight into how far Sir William wants Foresight to impinge on research council programmes and publicly funded science in general.

Money, as ever, is the biggest concern. With nearly 10 per cent of next year's science budget already earmarked by the OST, the councils are rightly worried about any further squeeze on their internal flexibility in funding research. It is not surprising that the six councils are already jockeying for any new money that might be made available by the Government.

As science minister, Mr Hunt has said that Foresight is not about massive injections of money. But with no new money, the implementation phase could end in deep trouble -particularly if the steering group wants to see major reorientation of certain research council programmes. If, as Sir William has said, it is his intention that the Foresight exercise should have as big an impact as the 1993 science White Paper, then changes to the landscape that is science policy could be dramatic, and so could the Bill.

The "wealth creation" policy outlined in the 1993 White Paper is now being felt with considerable force in the research councils. If anything the Foresight exercise, with its potential for locking in still more intimately with the nature and type of science being pursued in universities, could be even more powerful in determining the actual work that is carried out in university laboratories. But it will be disastrous both for the science base and the Government's image if they rob basic science to pay for industrial support: if they eat the seedcorn. There is widespread, if not public, recognition in Whitehall, that basic science is now underfunded.

The scientific community will therefore be watching keenly to see what the steering group has to say about basic research. Despite reassurances from the OST, many scientists fear prioritisation will mean a significant downgrading of curiosity-driven work. The OST must spell out clearly what implementation of Foresight will mean for such activity. This is a complex area of policy with ample scope for misunderstanding between the science community and the Government: the impact of Foresight on the future funding regime for science, including its impact on funding councils and the research assessment exercise, must be extensively detailed by the OST.

Scientists will also want to be reassured that they will not have to bear the brunt of implementation. At the level of Government, they will rightly want to know what other departments are going to be doing.

Industry presents a special challenge since it is widely acknowledged that firms - small firms in particular - must be encouraged to do more to take onboard the innovative science, engineering and technology that is and always has been streaming out of universities. This has been the country's long-standing failure. The publication of the DTI's competitiveness report alongside the steering group report will be the real test of political will to tackle this failing. There is then a real opportunity here for the Government to present itself as positive, supportive and forward looking.

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