The future of science in a vacuum

February 24, 1995

In last week's THES the Science Minister, David Hunt, referred to British scientists' "unrivalled contribution to scientific knowledge and understanding". We still have, he said, "world-class scientists and engineers across a very wide range of disciplines". These perceptions also formed the basis of the 1993 White Paper, whose analysis was based on the dysfunction between the United Kingdom's scientific strength and weakness in turning this into economic competitiveness.

What, then, are we to make of how the White Paper has been implemented? It proposed to strengthen the link between the science base and industry primarily by creating a common sense of purpose in defining targeted programmes and by encouraging an increasing affinity between industrial needs and strategic scientific aims. This involved an abandonment of the "linear model" of industrial innovation and placed at the core of future science policy a better dialogue between research users and research producers. On this highly interactive process would the improvement in the UK's performance rest. The key was not the actions of Whitehall, but the thousands of individual relationships to be encouraged and fostered between scientists and industrialists.

Implementation has so far been at variance with this. Some resources have been steered in broadly the right direction. Much of the rest has, however, been simply irrelevant.

One reason is that the White Paper's own analysis presents difficulties for the Government's wider ideology. It is difficult to accommodate the clear implication that the problems lie less in the quality of British science (as Mr Hunt now acknowledges) than in the capacity of British industry to exploit it. But this is not a Government minded to intervene in industry, nor does the Office of Science and Technology have the remit or clout to do so. So Government has tinkered with that part of the system which, on its own analysis, was working best. What have been the results of the zero-based review?

First it has required a supreme effort of will by all concerned not to turn the subtle analysis of the White Paper into a damagingly crude set of actions - a top-down, short-term, utilitarian, interventionist micro-management of research council portfolios. Vigilance on this matter must, however, remain eternal, given that the checks of the former Advisory Board for the Research Councils have virtually disappeared and with them the Haldane Principle on the separation of science and politics. The next test will be the outcome of the Technology Foresight process: the balance between using it as a premature attempt to identify priorities and using it to strengthen the dialogue between industry and academia will be crucial.

Whitehall impatience at the ABRC's failure to shift resources quickly between the research councils prompted the review. After 18 months of huffing and puffing what do we find? - some marginal movements between the councils' baselines and the allocation of Pounds 67 million to selected programmes. The ABRC is dead; long live the ABRC flexibility margin! The OST has discovered that it is easier to shift resources within baselines than between them and that, lo and behold, the research councils can act flexibly to changing national needs.

Other reinvented wheels might include: the strength and depth of university-industry links; the recognition that not all the research councils exhibit the problems of the old Science and Engineering Research Council; the potential of the biological sciences; and the realisation that peer review is the least worst system of quality control.

Meanwhile real problems are unattended. The response of industry has remained negligible. What is the Government going to do about this? The OST might point to Technology Foresight, but much more will be required than the enthusiasm of a few R&D managers placed on the panels. There are few signs that Government has thought seriously about, let alone acted upon, the urgent need to provide systems of industrial involvement which reach out into the mainstream decision-making side of industry and beyond the academics manque in many R&D departments. Equally there are few signs of any increase in technological literacy among senior industrial managers, undermining confidence that an intelligent user community can be identified and maintained.

But most of all the zero-based review leaves a vacuum where there should be a strategy. Where is the vision of Britain's scientific future and its relationship to users' needs? What are senior managers in universities to make of the signals emanating from the recent Public Expenditure Survey settlement? What is the future for physics, caught between the travails of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the resources lost through DR transfer? What is to be done about the quality of chemistry? Is the policy on medical research to dump as much as possible into the lap of the privatised, seventh research council, the Wellcome Trust? What is to be done about research careers or made of contradictory policies concerning the need to sustain a world-class science base in our universities and the move towards mass higher education?

Who now is going to give a lead? Those struggling to sustain Britain's international strength in science and technology, or trying to compete commercially in world markets still wait for true implementation of the White Paper to begin.

Howard Newby is vice chancellor, Southampton University.

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