Solid base for Battle's battle

May 16, 1997

The last time there was a Labour government there was a Department of Industry with a Secretary of State and three other ministers, and a Department of Energy with the same array of ministerial talent. In the Blair era, industry and energy are just two parts of the remit for John Battle, minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry - whose other duties also include the small matter of science, held to be worth a full ministry in some countries.

But scientists would be wrong to conclude that science has been relegated to half an hour per week of ministerial time. The person in charge of a huge expanse of the productive economy - industry, energy and technology - is also in charge of the research base that supports it.

His role, and the fact that his DTI colleague Ian McCartney has responsibility for the functioning of "the labour market", whatever that means, suggests that there will be strong DTI input to the work which John Prescott's superministry is doing on regional regeneration. The Labour manifesto mentioned the establishment of regional centres of research excellence. As John Goddard points out (page 12), universities are vital to regions not only for the money they bring in but because they help create regional economic success. In many areas universities are the biggest locally-based organisations and have a role in fostering new enterprises. The mergers that are rumoured and which Dearing may encourage will make them yet more dominant.

Universities will want a full role in the new regional development agencies and to see their importance acknowledged in the plans for the Greater London Authority and the Welsh assembly. The proposed Scottish parliament will have control of education and is likely to stress its economic importance.

The link between research and economic success is getting more obvious with the shift to dematerialised production where knowledge itself creates wealth. As Pat Cryer points out in our Research Opportunities supplement (page I), a PhD is now a useful preparation for work outside academia. Emma Westcott (page III) draws attention to professional doctorates involving work-related study. The qualification for scholarly life is turning into one for business as well.

Also on Mr Battle's agenda is the future of the many Government research laboratories he visited as shadow science minister. The election should have secured their future in the public sector but they still need new sources of cash to help renew their vitality. They provide examples of effective cooperation between universities, industry and the public sector.

That said, there remains an area of basic research which is too speculative to attract funding from commerce. There will be a host of ministers wanting to be involved in discussions about regional development, pump-priming for industry, and training for work. But only Mr Battle will be there to fight for the people every wealthy country should support without knowing whether they will ever find out something fascinating or useful or both. Mr Battle will need to look at ways of improving the working conditions of researchers, and perhaps of opening up better ways out for people who are not among the most inventive.

He will need to look at ways of encouraging other stakeholders - the 1996 buzzword that seems to have vanished abruptly from New Labour jargon - to pay for research they want to use. A major project like the Population and Household Change Programme (page 7 and III) is of value to everyone from British Gas to the Child Support Agency.

Much will depend on how seriously Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State at the DTI, takes her commitment to keep a close eye on science. If Beckett and Battle can succeed in locating science centrally in British economic and industrial life, and maintaining government funding where it really is essential, scientists should have no cause to complain of their minister's status.

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