Science takes pole position

October 16, 2008

New minister Lord Drayson has a Cabinet seat and a drive to champion research. Zoe Corbyn reports

Paul Drayson, the new Science Minister, has sought to quell any fears academics may have that his own background in applied and entrepreneurial science means that curiosity-driven research could be at risk, promising to be a "champion" for blue-skies research.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Lord Drayson vowed to protect the area. "When the community does its homework on me they will be reassured ... I promise (to protect blue-skies research)," he said.

He said that he had been involved in science and innovation his "whole life" and knew it was a "very organic thing".

"You can't join the dots and say that if you do this, then that will happen. It is not like that. I believe very strongly that pure research is fundamentally important and I am going to be a champion for science ... We need to have basic research and so I will be staunchly defending that."

His comments came just a few days after his appointment in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's reshuffle, which has given the science portfolio Cabinet status.

In a wide-ranging interview, Dr Drayson also urged science graduates who have fallen on hard times in the City to return to careers in science as researchers, teachers and entrepreneurs, and he nailed his colours to the mast as a supporter of manned space flight for Britain.

Lord Drayson's appointment marks a return to ministerial duties for the life peer and wealthy businessman with a PhD in robotics from Aston University. He was the Minister for Defence Procurement between 2005 and 2007, before quitting to pursue his passion for competitive motor sport.

Prior to this he co-founded an Oxford-based biotechnology company, PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, which sold for £542 million in 2003.

His appointment to the House of Lords in 2005 is not without controversy. He made a £100,000 donation to the Labour Party while successfully bidding for a lucrative Government vaccine contract and also gave another £500,000 within six weeks of being made a life peer.

Integration across government

As well as attending Cabinet, Lord Drayson will sit on the new National Economic Council set up by Gordon Brown to co-ordinate economic policies across government and chair a new Cabinet Committee for Science and Innovation, with a mission to integrate science across government.

He said that the elevation of science to the Cabinet showed that it was recognised "at the highest level". But the appointment also promises to create an interesting dynamic with his boss. John Denham, the Universities Secretary, also attends Cabinet, and those close to Lord Drayson say he has a healthy disregard for hierarchies.

His appointment is considered to be in the "mould" of that of David Sainsbury, a wealthy businessman who resigned in November 2006 after eight years as Science Minister.

Since Lord Sainsbury's departure the portfolio has been a revolving door, with two science ministers in quick succession.

Lord Drayson said he been "very impressed" with what Lord Sainsbury had accomplished, crediting him with leading a "renaissance of science" in the UK and "transforming technology transfer".

When he established PowderJect, he said, scientists who got involved in the commercialisation of their science were ostracised. "That is no longer the case in British universities," he noted.

Vowing to take up where Lord Sainsbury and his other predecessors left off, he said he would take the peer's approach "into and across the heart of government".

Lord Drayson also said he did not believe the economic crisis meant that science funding would suffer in the next budget, arguing instead that the Government recognised the value of science to innovation and growth, and that investment must continue.

"Where others may decide to cut back on research, we should maintain our research and I think this is an opportunity (to come out of the global downturn in a stronger position)," he said.

He also said that in the wake of the economic crisis, it was likely that many people would be leaving jobs in the City, and he urged science graduates to return to their roots.

"Now is a great time to consider coming back. Come back and teach science, come back and do scientific research, come back and start up science-based enterprises," he said.

A commitment to a human space flight programme is also an issue set to rise up the agenda with Lord Drayson's appointment. The British National Space Centre is currently considering options.

Lord Drayson said: "There is a review taking place. I will take on board the advice from that review but I will be upfront and say yes, I think a British astronaut is a good idea."

Former Science Minister Ian Pearson has joined the Treasury.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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