Willetts appeals for hard evidence from committees in effort to stave off cuts

David Willetts followed up his inaugural appearance before the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee with a turn before its Commons equivalent last week.

July 29, 2010

But the baleful shadow of the Treasury prevented much light from being cast in either session. The universities and science minister apologised on both occasions for being unable to make any financial commitments ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October, saying only that he hoped that, despite the inevitable cuts, science would emerge "strong and sustainable".

He said he did not see his role in budget negotiations as a "shop steward" for science, but also sounded frustrated by the paucity of robust, empirical evidence about the damage cuts were likely to do to the research base.

This, he implied, was the only thing likely to stay the hand of Treasury slashers, and he appealed to both committees for such evidence.

The Lords committee chair, Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, promised his committee would follow up that "welcome challenge".

There was no response from the MPs - but that was indicative of a general reticence and apparent unreadiness, before packed public and press galleries, to step into the large shoes left by former committee stalwarts Phil Willis and Evan Harris.

Mr Willetts peppered his answers to the committee's gentle questioning with references to the Treasury. Referring to its invitation to other departments to submit plans about how they would manage cuts of 25 and 40 per cent, he noted wryly that "a Treasury invitation is hard to distinguish from an instruction".

Nor would the Treasury be inclined to pour money into research and development in "a list of sexy sectors plucked out of the air", or to fund science communication without evidence of the "added value" public money would bring.

As for pressing Chancellor George Osborne to end the anomaly of his being the only government department to lack a chief scientific adviser, Mr Willetts said that he had taken the view that there were currently "other areas where my negotiations with the Treasury should focus".

The committee's primary interest was in the mechanisms of how science fed into government thinking, but the impact agenda and the research excellence framework also came up.

Andrew Miller, the committee's chair, recalled his days on the board of what was then Portsmouth Polytechnic, and the "battles" caused by the fact that different courses cost different amounts to run.

"I thought you were going to suggest a very radical thought," Mr Willetts smiled, "which is that the English academics should assess the impact of the physicists and the physicists assess the impact of the historians. That would be a very interesting exercise."

Whether such a metric would be robust enough for the Treasury, though, went unexplored.


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