Yes, (Science) Minister

By Robert Bud, Keeper of Science and Medicine

The science ministers may change, but problems endure. The single issue that most preoccupies thinking about science research policy has remained constant for more than two decades: what policies will best support translation of laboratory brainwaves into commercial success for UK PLC.

The perennial problems of turning scientific excellence into commercial success without damaging the research base was the central issue discussed at a remarkable gathering of the individuals who have been in charge of British science since the early 1990s, held at the Science Museum and cosponsored by the Mile End Group of Queen Mary University of London, and the Royal Society.

The Minister responsible for science, David Willetts MP, was joined by Lord Waldegrave, Science Minister from 1992-1994 (and former Chair of Trustees of the Science Museum) and Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science 1998-2006 in an event chaired by the historian Lord Hennessy.

Before them was a who’s who of the British scientific establishment, including the current Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington and his predecessors, Sir Bill Stewart, and Lord May. There were former vice-chancellors too, Sir John Ashworth (Salford and LSE), Sir Alan Wilson (Leeds), Sir Roger Williams (Reading) and the current VC of Queen Mary University of London, Simon Gaskell. Others guests included Sir Walter Bodmer who chaired the first committee to explore Public Understanding of Science and Sir Geoffrey Allen, founding Secretary of the Science and Engineering Research Council in 1981.

The problems of managing science have not fundamentally changed in half a century, and David Willetts emphasised continuity between Lord Waldegrave’s White Paper “Realising our Potential” (1993), Lord Sainsbury’s “Race to the Top” (2007) and Willetts’ current concerns with helping British industry avoid the ‘Valley of Death, where projects are considered too embryonic for industry to fund and too commercial to be backed by the research councils.

David Willetts emphasised his belief that greater American success in taking university innovations to market was the result of better American government support measures than any cultural differences. Innovations by American scientists receive support at an earlier stage from American government measures than their British counterparts, which enables the US industry to take lower risks when delivering a novel technology to a market. But a note of warning and wise advice based on hard experience was given by Lord Waldegrave, who commented that put scientists and politicians too close together nearly always ends in catastrophe. Lord Sainsbury pointed out that offering to contribute to solving the problems that bedevil the Treasury is a better approach to the extraction of resources than demanding support.

Lord Sainsbury questioned the assumption that public knowledge of science would lead to the public boosting its appetite for science. However, Sir Walter Bodmer pointed out that his committee never believed that widespread knowledge of science would equal public understanding of it, but was rather a prerequisite. This distinction had got lost subsequently. Regulation also has a role, with Sir John Ashworth pointing out the role of research-supported standards and regulation was one way to ensure the best quality in industry.

The speakers vigorously agreed that it was in the interest of British industry to have strong government funded research institutes in a landmark meeting that distilled some of the basic truths to emerge from science policy over the past few decades.

A number of tweets from the night have been storified and a transcript of the entire meeting will be mounted in a blog to follow soon.

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