Willetts hands-on in the speech that never was

David Willetts put science and future technology at the heart of his vision of markets created by "strong and effective government" - in a speech that was never delivered.

November 1, 2012

Failure to launch: no Bondian jetpacks? Perhaps the state could help

The universities and science minister had been scheduled to give the annual J.D. Bernal Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London on 18 October. But it was cancelled because of suggestions that students planned to disrupt the lecture in protest against the government's higher education policies.

The Conservative minister's involvement in the lecture - which tackles the social role of science - also sparked controversy as it is named after John Desmond Bernal, the physicist and Marxist.

Despite the lecture's cancellation, Birkbeck has published the transcript on its website, revealing a carefully crafted speech. In contrast with some of his Tory colleagues, Mr Willetts advocates an active role for the government in industry and the economy.

In more typical Thatcherite vein, he does declare his debt to influential free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, adding that his theories "lie behind the coalition's belief in decentralisation, localism and diversity - and our wariness of government's capacity to pick winners".

However, uncertainty about predicting the technologies of the future (Mr Willetts laments scientists' failure to develop a viable James Bond-style jetpack) "does not mean we should do nothing. We have to have a view because governments do have to do things."

Mr Willetts envisages "a more ambitious recognition that government can have a more creative role as it helps to create the markets of the future by setting common standards and lowering entry costs".

As good examples of the government's "horizon scanning" to identify future technologies, he cites its £145 million investment in high-performance computing and its £50 million investment to support the commercialisation of graphene.

The government can help to reduce risk for entrepreneurs, Mr Willetts adds. "This is why our Technology Strategy Board is so important - it takes some of the [closer-to-market] risks which in the US are borne by the National Institutes of Health or famously DARPA, the defence research agency."

He says: "We underestimate the links between government and enterprise in free-market America. We should not be defensive or embarrassed by attempts to do the same."


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