Supremo in science plea

April 4, 1997

Sir William Stewart, former chief scientific adviser to the Cabinet Office, has called for a full-time Scottish chief scientific adviser "with clout" to ensure that science and technology north of the border meet Scottish needs.

Sir William, also former head of the Office of Science and Technology and now special adviser to Edinburgh University's principal, Sir Stewart Sutherland, was giving the first Edinburgh University lecture at the city's international science festival.

Scotland needed its own science policy, with an over-arching advisory committee on science, education and industry to give strategic advice to the Scottish secretary, he said. It needed to address issues such as bringing higher education and industry closer together for innovative research; how to turn Scotland's strong research base in the life sciences into jobs; and the need to use the skills and expertise of the new universities to better effect in supporting national needs.

But he was opposed to the prospect of a Scottish research council on the grounds that Scotland did not have sufficient funds to compete internationally in terms of high-tech equipment. He said: "Scotland should rightly remain part of the United Kingdom for a great deal of science policy.

"But the major question is whether while going along with the main thrust of UK policy, the uniqueness of Scotland's science and technology portfolio - its strengths, opportunities and weaknesses - are being optimally addressed."

A chief scientific adviser with links to other Government chief scientists was needed to help drive forward a broad strategy for Scotland. His or her role would be to give advice on funding needs across science and technology, ranging from higher education and industry to the environment. In 25 years' time, Scotland would be carrying out only 0.2 per cent of global research, and it needed to target the broad areas where it had the prospect of global leadership, Sir William said.

"Unless the research is of exceptionally high quality, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify scientists being paid for life by the taxpayer to do whatever they choose. The UK is not sufficiently wealthy that it does not need to benefit from the application of science to national and societal needs. Blue skies research is important, very important, but not of over-riding importance."

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