The day British science flowered for Mr Blair

January 22, 1999

Scientists hope their visit to No 10 has whetted ministers' appetites for fresh policies. Olivea Judson reports

The day before the air strikes began against Iraq, prime minister Tony Blair found himself sitting at the cabinet table not with his cabinet but with a motley crew of scientists to hear about the strange twists of discovery that can lead a fruit-fly geneticist to illuminate aspects of the growth of tumours in people.

He was presented with a device no larger than a credit card that will soon be able to tell him his risk of genetic disease. He saw two plants, differing by a single gene, and learned that the difference was enough to transform a regular flowering plant into one that puts its energy into growing festoons of leaves.

The occasion was a 90-minute "science seminar", organised by the prime minister's office (following last summer's highly publicised session on the arts) to give Mr Blair an overview of the state of British science.

Hence the motley crew of 15 biologists, engineers, scientists from both industry and academia, journalists, environmentalists, venture capitalists and ethicists. Sir Robert May, the chief scientific adviser to the government, was present, along with Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo-Wellcome, and John Taylor, who this month took over as the research councils' director general. Younger scientists included Matthew Freeman, a geneticist at Cambridge, and Polina Bayvel, an electrical engineer at University College London. Sir Ron Oxburgh, rector of Imperial College, chaired the meeting.

Five ministers, including education secretary David Blunkett, then trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson and then paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson, completed the company.

Besides the usual topics - who should pay and why, the importance of the research assessment exercise, where scientific research should be concentrated, how to create a more "entrepreneurial society", and traditional griping about having to write too many grant applications - the subjects raised were as diverse as the group. They ranged from the hazards of climate change and population growth to the boost to public enthusiasm for science that would result if Mr Mandelson demonstrated Newton's laws by bungee jumping.

Any one of these topics could have easily taken up the whole 90 minutes. To cram each into just a few minutes, while succeeding in providing a feast of intellectual delights, left questions unasked and contentious statements uncontested.

Two themes emerged. The first was the extraordinary ascendancy of biology in general and of genetics in particular. Even the geneticists seemed surprised by some of what their colleagues had to reveal.

The evident excitement provoked predictable howls of protest from some quarters, lest funding for other sciences suffer as a result of biology being the "flavour of the month". This misses the point: biology is not the flavour of the month. It is the flavour of the next century.

The danger is not one of falling prey to scientific fashion, but of failing to recognise the interdependence of the sciences, as exemplified by the extent to which discoveries in biology will increasingly depend on other technologies such as computing.

The second theme, which offers greater scope for political leadership, concerns public attitudes to science. It was here that tensions were evident. One participant was shocked when two ministers confessed to having learnt no science since O levels.

Another speaker painted a picture of the horror with which much of the public views the genetic engineering of crops and questioned the assertion that genetically modified crops will be needed to feed the world. Another questioned the view that a public consensus on these matters, even if achievable, would be meaningful or desirable.

Ultimately, the aim of a meeting of this kind must be to stimulate and inform the development of government policy on science. Given the subsequent events of the week - not least the Gulf crisis and Mr Mandelson's resignation - it is likely to be some time before the prime minister has a chance to think about science again. When he does, he is more likely to remember the general tone and breadth of the meeting than particular comments.

Mr Blair's reaction was hard to judge. Mr Mandelson was the most obviously enthusiastic and informed participant from the government's side. He gave the clear impression that he would consider following the DTI's white paper on competitiveness with one on science. From the point of view of placing science and technology at the centre of government thinking and policy, his resignation could not have been more badly timed.

Olivea Judson is Wellcome Trust fellow in evolutionary biology at Imperial College and one of the "motley crew".

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