What the experts say about the white paper

August 4, 2000

* Colin Blakemore Professor of physiology Oxford University

If you ask the British public whether science is a good thing or a bad thing, the majority would say it is bad. That is a sad reflection on the positive influence that science and technology have had on people's lives in the past 50 to 100 years.

An American scholar recently declined an invitation to apply for a prestigious post at Oxford not, he said, on account of the fourfold lower difference in salary but because of his feeling that Britain has become an anti-science nation.

I think involving the public sensibly in decision-making requires two processes. One is making the highest quality information available to the public. The second is having a mechanism for the public to have an input to decision-making.

While the white paper addresses the first of those issues rather thoroughly, I do not see much evidence that the second has been tackled. It is essential that people believe that science can benefit them.

My work with genetic disorders of the brain depends on animal studies: work with animals in this country is in crisis, which makes young scientists hesitant to enter the field. They are concerned not only about security and public perception, but about the fact that they may not be able to do the research. Yet genetics and medicine, two areas of biotechnology targeted in the paper, depend on animal research. If you ask people whether they support work with animals, the majority will be opposed. But if you give them a one or two sentence explanation of why the work is important, most will say they are in favour.

There needs to be a way for informed public opinion rather than knee-jerk sentiments, to be gauged and channelled into guiding the government in its reaction to problems.

* Fred Taylor, Head, atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics, Oxford University

We work in the largest physics department in the country, studying the atmosphere and climate of planets - Earth and others, such as Venus and Mars - to forecast their future behaviour. To do that, we need well-equipped labs for developing space instruments, which can cost up to tens of millions of pounds, and good computing resources for analysing the data and for running numerical models to simulate atmospheric behaviour. And staff. It is the people you have got who make a difference.

The government should rethink the superstar business. Talented people are drifting out of academia. That makes it hard to keep a team together, and superstars are useless without teams. It does not help to attract 50 people if it just results in another 500 leaving for Germany and the US because they are paid badly here.

Raising the salary scale for every student in the country is a move in the right direction, but we need to raise salaries across the board so we can build good teams and keep them. My team is losing IT people - electronics technicians, people capable of doing precision work - because they can earn more at the industrial park across the street.

We also need good research programmes, which we used to have and which the last two governments took away. I am lucky in that I am still doing most of the research I want to be doing. But there will come a point when we are not viable any more in doing the more expensive research. Already, for other research groups in Britain, research means working at a computer terminal on data produced by the Americans or the French.

We need general improvement, not just targeted schemes. The government is assuming the university has something to offer - strong teams of bright people turning out new things - and it is right. But it is addressing the transfer, not the unhealthy state of the teams and their capacity to engage in pure research.

* Steven Ley, Professor of organic chemistry, Cambridge University

Four years ago I started a company based on some exciting discoveries in combinatorial chemistry, which is an area of science that is revolutionising the pharmaceutical industry. Last week, our company was acquired by a United States corporation, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, for Pounds 35 million.

While we are all excited by this and the opportunities of this partnership, it is a pity it could not have grown to its full potential as a United Kingdom-owned operation.

I welcome many of the initiatives proposed in the white paper to improve the UK's competitive position in science and to provide an infrastructure for innovation leading to business opportunity, to create wealth and improve the health of the nation. But there is a need for much more.

It is a great start but there is a long way to go.

There is a certain amount of repackaging going on in these proposals and these initiatives, but it would be wise to remember that innovation comes from bright ideas generated by creative individuals.

There is no shortage of young academics with superb ideas. But unless they are supported by ten times their present start-up packages, I fear we may not be able to properly capitalise on their potential before they become bogged down by bureaucracy and report writing.

I hope these new proposals take a longer-term perspective and recognise some of the bottlenecks. Short-term thinking does not lead to long-term success.

Interviews by Giselle Weiss

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