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Changing times at the OST

Sir Robert May, outgoing UK Chief Scientist, spoke to Robert Walgate about treading the fine line between government and the science community, and the changing face of science in the UK and Europe.

By | August 16, 2000

Sir Robert May, outgoing UK Chief Scientist, spoke to Robert Walgate about treading the fine line between government and the science community, and the changing face of science in the UK and Europe.

As UK Chief Scientist and Head of the Office of Science and Technology [OST] aren't you in an ambiguous position? Both regulator and champion of science and technology?

"I don't think the OST is either. We are a source of independent advice. Which is why the head of the Office is an outsider. I see my own responsibility as walking a quite interesting line. I'm a civil servant whose whole purpose is to challenge. Really looking at things, right across all of science and engineering, medicine and social science; and to make sure that it is being handled well, that decisions are being made openly and taking account of all viewpoints. And to intervene in the rare occasions when one thinks not. The job becomes interesting when I'm led to a view that contradicts current policy."

You are leaving the job after five years, to become President of the Royal Society. What have you achieved?

"Well, I'll single out two things — partly personal accomplishments but largely the office as a whole. First, being part of a culture change that certainly in this office has gone from assuming that reports produced by the Council of Science & Technology for the Prime Minister are confidential, that many of my own letters are confidential advice; to go from that to saying that these are open documents, that the minutes of the Council meetings are on the web the next day. This transformation to wider consultation and wider openness is, of course, created by the temper of the time, but I think we've moved swiftly and thoroughly and I take satisfaction in that.

"Second, the budgetary settlements we have got, which reflect changes of values in the Treasury, in the values the new Government has brought in, particularly the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, and the effective advocacy of the science minister in the Cabinet. But they also reflect in part the changing of the discussion from a science community — like all other communities — simply saying it wanted more; to a more analytic appreciation of what we do spend in relation to other countries, and not just the inputs but the outputs.

"So, we've ended that decades-long argument, with the scientists saying we want more money because we spend less than other countries and the other side saying, yes, but you should manage the money better. We've now demonstrated that no country manages its money better, in the sense that the output of papers or citations per pound spent puts us for a decade at world number one. This ended at a stroke the debate about efficient management."

[The OST's figures show the UK consistently a world leader since 1989, in terms of research productivity, when compared to other European countries and the US. The measure the OST uses is published papers per unit of research (science base) funding three years previously (to allow time for funding to create output). On this measure, if the UK is taken as 100%, in the latest year calculated (1998) Denmark follows with 78%, Switzerland 89%, Sweden 87%, Canada 72%, Australia 67%, Netherlands 60%, US 53%, Italy 51%, France 48%, Germany 46%, and Japan 21%.]

Your figures [above] draw attention to great differences in productivity between countries in Europe. And this leads me to ask you about the European Union concept of a European research area — the ERA — championed by the research commissioner Philippe Busquin. How can the ERA work? Take a specific example. According to your figures, France has half the productivity of the UK. Will we see UK research councils, through the ERA concept, spending money on French scientists? How do you see the ERA progressing?

"That's a very interesting question. And I should say that the analyses of citations or publications are exceedingly crude, with all sorts of biases, and there are many people in France who would feel that the conclusions are a bit too highly coloured. And I for one would say that some of the best science in the world is found in French institutes, places like the Pasteur; but at the same time I do believe that some of the systems for managing science in different countries deliver better value than others. And the better ones have systems that base a fair fraction of their research in or around universities, which are infested with the irreverent young, and that set the youngest people free to express their creativity, rather than embedding them more in hierarchies of deference. I also think too much security at too early an age — although we may always long for it — is not always the best thing for an individual's career.

"So, yes there are differences [between European countries]. But at the same time I think it is extremely good to be thinking very deliberately about Europe as a coherent whole. As we do in the EU's Framework Programme, which is about making sure that the best young people from every country, even the less developed members of the EU, get every opportunity to realize their potential. The EU's Human Capital Mobility programme is a great thing for that. To help promote unity and networking.

"I think it's very good to be thinking very deliberately about how we spend money on huge items of equipment, in ways beyond the reach — or beyond sense, anyway — for any one country."

Such as the new synchrotron...

"Yes exactly. But even there I like the way that is shaping up not as some centrally directed programme out of Brussels, but one where interested parties come together in ways that EU mechanisms may help; but where the ideas are coming from the bottom up. The last thing we want to create is yet further bureaucracies of civil servants motivated to draw-up schemes for scientists in order to keep themselves employed.

"So, I think the general thinking behind the ERA is good. However, I do not — God forbid! — want us to start putting in place something that decides the optimal way to run science in Europe, and then tries to brigade everyone under that heading. Especially for basic science.

"Among some of the European countries with lower value-for-money science indices, with relatively later opportunities for autonomous development for young people, you would find a lot of interest in changing that. You would find that in France, and in Germany. But all that is best done by the science communities themselves. The last thing we want is some central directive of critics rather that players."

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