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UK science - politicians get the seven-year itch

Seven years after the last UK (Conservative) government 'White Paper' on science, Tony Blair's Labour administration will try to make its own marriage between science and government policy.

By | July 17, 2000

LONDON, July 17 (Science Analysed) According to an analysis just published, British scientists are living on "a pittance"; only half of the Wellcome Trust's research students are staying on, because of "poor salaries and career structures"; work permits and visa arrangements are taking no account of the internationalism of modern science; there is an "intolerable" lack of women scientists in the UK; school science labs are "woeful"; the science budget should be doubled, but many government departments are reducing R&D spending; long start-up times, high costs and fragmented capacity at National Health Service sites are compromising clinical research; a "silo budget mentality" and incoherent planning across departments is strait-jacketing research policy; the UK is under-performing in patenting; most of the issues raised in the last (1993) government White Paper remain to be solved.

These are some of the points that should be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper (government statement) on science. So say some highly placed commentators writing in a punchy, well-informed analysis of the science policy challenges facing the government, just published in Science and Public Affairs — the joint science policy journal of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society.

Although the White Paper is thought to be imminent, it's unlikely it will be published until the Treasury Minister, Gordon Brown, has announced his Public Spending Review tomorrow.

In the meantime, the writers in Science and Public Affairs express strong opinions about what the Paper should say. Ian Gibson, Chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, calls for a national 'Science Strategy Council' to double national government funding. Robin Fears and John Keller of the Alliance and Technology Group and Tadataka Yamada of SmithKline Beecham enthusiastically support the Technology Foresight Initiative — a government planning tool that in the past has produced more words than action — and greater internationalism.

Clare Matteson and David Carr of the Wellcome Trust bemoan the fact that the £750 million government–Wellcome Trust Joint Infrastructure Fund, launched in 1998 is not enough to improve university research labs. "With two rounds still to go, over £3.1 billion in applications have been received of which £800 million worth were judged as 'excellent' but were not funded." According to Matteson and Carr "The White Paper must not fail our universities."

But the White Paper will come out of a department — the Office of Science and Technology (OST) at the Department of Trade and Industry — that directly controls less than 12% of the UK's gross R&D spending; it even controls only 38% of the Government's science spend. As Peter Collins, Director of Science Policy at the Royal Society, explains, the OST has no direct control over the Department of Education and Employment, which is responsible for the universities — or the dozens of other departments that fund science, such as the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries & Food, and the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions, which have cut their science budgets significantly. The OST has direct power over the research councils but, says Collins "rearranging the deckchairs at the research councils" is not enough. The UK needs "joined-up government" in science, he says.

Nevetheless, Ian Gibson told BioMed Central today (17 July) that he believes Prime Minister Tony Blair and Treasury Minister Gordon Brown are "on board" in their appreciation of the importance of science. "They both use the word 'science' more and more," said Gibson. "The only question is whether they will put their money where their mouths are."

Science and Public Affairs, published jointly by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, is only available on subscription or through membership of the BAAS. For more information or a subscription form contact Alun Roberts (alun.roberts.britassoc.org.uk).

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