The appliance of science potential

February 3, 1995

Science minister David Hunt announced the allocation of the Pounds 1.3 billion science budget yesterday. Mark Richmond argues against Government attempts to micro-manage research.

It is now nearly two years since the Government published its White Paper Realising our Potential. What of its consequences? The problem with new Government departments, new ministers and White Papers, is that they all tend to increase public spending, and rumour has it that the new Office of Public Service and Science was only allowed its White Paper if it did not lead to such increases. Another problem is that any policy has to be acceptable to the Department of Trade and Industry.

White Papers set out Government, not departmental, policy and their contents often reflect the political weight of ministers involved. In this case Mr Heseltine was not the sponsoring minister but he had a major say in its contents. Similarly the support of the Department for Education was important. How can one have a policy for the science base which does not encompass the DFE's spend on university research through the funding councils? And so, not without difficulty, the White Paper gestated and was born.

The policy set out in Realising our Potential was to encourage the use of the science base to underpin the United Kingdom's wealth creation and enhance the quality of life. As a policy it is unexceptionable and the DTI and the DFE could accommodate its objectives. In an era when public money is in short supply scarce resource has to be used effectively.

But without extra funds its achievements were always going to be limited. From the beginning there were concerns as to how dirigiste was to be its implementation. In places the text of the document was ominous. On the proposals for the new MRes. degree, for example, there was little room for manoeuvre, however inappropriate the proposals were for some purposes. But perhaps the greatest anxiety lay in the extent to which the policy might be used to drive research "short-term". Was "wealth creation" to be read as "income generation"? Would the next research selectivity exercise, run by the funding councils, grade research for its narrow "usefulness". Would industry come to steer, or even dominate, university research? Although many of these anxieties are receding as implementation proceeds, concerns in other areas are growing. The White Paper is already proving to be a charter for micro-management by Government. Limited sums of money are made available in attempts to refocus research in our universities, and the spending patterns of our research councils, into narrow "wealth-creating" channels. Examples are the introduction of the Realising Our Potential Awards and the objectives behind the recently altered grant proposal forms issued by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. One cannot stress too strongly that the Government should resist the temptation to micro-manage. What is needed is for the Government's policy to be enabling not interventionist. All high-class science comes from the brains and energy of scientists left as free as possible from constraints, not from bureaucrats seeking to achieve ends by manipulating funds.

Which brings us to the Foresight exercise. Ideally the outcome of such exercises should be the setting of long-term objectives to help UK industry capture the high-technology markets of the future; and this needs to be achieved by deliberate and careful reiteration. All the signs are, however, that it is to be a one-off exercise and used to identify areas of research currently deemed important - the outcome of the Delphi exercise. In this way it is hoped to build a convincing case to the Treasury for more money as part of the next public expenditure round. The worry is that the Treasury will collude with this approach since it would allow a problem to be settled "once and for all" by the injection of a (doubtless inadequate) cash sum.

One gathers that certain of the Foresight panels are in revolt at this prospect and likely to argue that the office's job is not to identify and fund specific areas of research short-term, however strategically important they may seem, but rather to provide the needed environment for university research to flourish: the necessary equipment, adequate staff, and buildings that are not falling into ruin. In short: to enable and not to micro-manage.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the matter. Is the White Paper to be used to set a much needed long-term strategy for the science base, or will it be used to meet short-term political needs? One is not optimistic.

Sir Mark Richmond was chairman of the Science and Engineering Research Council from 1990 to 1994 and is currently at Glaxo.

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