Vacating the science hot seat

June 9, 1995

Sir William Stewart, the Government's chief scientific adviser, retires this week. He talks to Kam Patel. Sir William Stewart's retirement this week as the Government's chief scientific adviser marks the end of one of the most eventful periods in the recent history of science policy making in the United Kingdom.

He joined the Cabinet Office in October 1990 following three years at the helm of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, the predecessor to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. He had been in his new post for only six weeks before Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, was removed from office.

The creation of the Office of Science and Technology after the 1992 General Election set in motion the evolution of the science White Paper of 1993. It also led to the appointment of William Waldegrave as science minister. Sir William said: "That was a super appointment as far as I was concerned. We sparked off each other and intellectually we had a good rapport."

The science White Paper marked the biggest upheaval of science policy for 20 years. Sir William attributes its success to the massive consultation exercise preceding its formulation. Reflecting on the thinking within the Cabinet at the time, he says that the paper involved a consideration of international as well as national issues.

"It was during that period, as we looked globally, as we went to Japan, Korea and Washington dc, that there was an appreciation that the world was changing around us very quickly. My concern was that the UK had been caught out. We were not changing as quickly as the world demanded.

"Just look at us now. Look at the cars we are all driving. They are not British cars. Look at the washing machines in our homes - a lot of them are Italian. There was therefore a general appreciation that the status quo was not an option for the future. There was a real need for us to establish a base that would see us into the next century in good shape. That was our driving purpose."

Sir William has had the full support of the prime minister in pushing through the White Paper policies and says that he has forged a "very good" working relationship with the current science minister David Hunt. "I am impressed by David Hunt's pragmatism just as I was impressed by William Waldegrave's intellectual prowess."

The growing expense of "carry out science" and the realisation that it is not possible to do everything anymore has been a driving concern: "Spreading the jam totally across all work is simply not going to work anymore. Naturally, people worry about how it is going to impact on them.

"My own view is that scientists in universities are pretty intelligent people, but some are doing what they are doing because they have never been asked whether it is a sensible thing to do. And if we cannot do everything should we not be focussing our activities a bit more?" At the same time he stresses the importance of funding the best scientists irrespective of their subject area: "I do not care what they are working on as long as they are doing really good work."

Policy has also been formulated on the basis that there are some areas of science that can help to boost national prosperity: "Should we not be channeling expertise and skills in these areas? At the end of the day if we do not generate wealth, it is going to be extremely difficult for scientists to get any publicly funded work."

More must also be done to recognise the valuable local role played by universities that win short-term industrial contracts: "Some of the most able vice chancellors appreciate that their institutions are not in the business of generating Nobel Prize winners but that they still have an important role to play through securing such industrial contracts. Every university must have high standards of teaching and research but I do not believe that it is necessary for all of them to get all the funding from the research councils."

He is under the impression that universities are worried that the research assessment exercise is heavily biased to funding on a departmental basis. He says: "If you look at journals, you will see that all the articles that are published are multi-authored, multi-national and cut across subject areas. And if that is the way the best papers are getting published - through interactive work - then we need to make sure that those that do that kind of work are not being disadvantaged by whatever the funding system happens to be."

But he stresses that it is not the job of the OST to detail these changes. "It would be quite wrong for us in the OST to issue a top-down directive but it is up to us to point out what we think is an area of concern."

Highlighting the need to breakdown departmental barriers, he points out that the most interesting areas of science highlighted by Technology Foresight cropped up at the interfaces of disciplines. Foresight has not been carried out for the purpose of making mechanical changes to the science policy apparatus: "We are doing it because the explosion of scientific information means that we cannot fund everything."

While Foresight highlighted priority generic technologies and infrastructures for the future, the documentation so far has said little about which areas might face the axe. He says: "If you have a limited budget and decide to prioritise in some areas then, in a sense, others will lose out by default. But it is not up to us to decide which areas will lose out. That is the job for the research councils and those that receive Government funds.

"What I would say though is that I hope we do not lose out in complete areas. What we have to do is try and sustain competence across the board and yet have areas where we really are world class. The expertise to make those decisions lies with the research councils. It is up to the councils and the director general for the research councils, Sir John Cadogan, to make those decisions."

Having been chief scientific adviser during the worst post-war recession has not been easy. Sir William would have preferred to have had the job during a friendlier economic climate but says: "I would not have missed this job for anything. Even if it had been a boom period, we would have still taken the long term view that we did with the White Paper and formulated it against a global backcloth."

He says it has been a "privilege" to have been the chief scientific adviser although it is a "lonely job because you've got to be your (own) person". He admits to having been downhearted at times but says he always managed to pick himself up to "continue with the mission that I believe in. I have certainly not been complacent. I have tried to do my level best and now it is time for somebody to do even better".

Perhaps most hurtful to him have been attacks from certain quarters of the science community: "I have got a bit depressed at times. You work like the blazes, try and do your best for the scientific community and then you pick up the newspaper and see Professor Joe Bloggs from a university criticising us for short-termism and blah blah blah. I would like to put him right but because I am a civil servant I am unable to do so. Maybe having finished the job I may be able to defend my actions more than has been possible hitherto."

He has been incensed by attacks from ex-heads of research councils. "Would-be gurus who won't leave the stage quietly after their sell-by-date. I do not intend to make that mistake," he says.

Born in Glasgow in 1935, Sir William was brought up on the island of Islay. His father was a policeman who retired early due to ill health. "I had superb parents and a fantastic, though not easy, childhood. In those day all I wanted to do was play for Glasgow Rangers," he says laughing.

During the school holidays he worked as a plumber's mate, an experience he says has helped to ensure that throughout his career his feet were always firmly planted on the ground: "I've seen too many people whose feet have left the ground and never returned and who have run into trouble as a result."

Sir William kicked off his academic career at Glasgow University where he studied botany, eventually specialising in nitrogen fixation. At the age of 32 he secured a chair at Dundee University, building up a renowned department in biological sciences. At 42, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society.

He has no intention at present to take on a full-time job but is planning to undertake part-time assignments. "One of the things I am not going to do is vegetate. I've got another job in me yet," he says.

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