U.K. Science Minister: 'The Boom Has Come to an End'

18 May 2010 5:18 pm

David Willetts, the new U.K. minister for universities and science, held his first briefing with the press earlier today, gracefully dodging a cascade of questions about science funding but doing little to dispel the idea that anticipated cuts were indeed coming. The new coalition government formed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties has promised significant reductions in public spending to lower Britain's debt, but details remain scarce for now (Later this week, see the 21 May issue of Science for more on this topic, including how Britain's research councils are preparing for major budget cuts.)

Though not a scientist, Willetts noted he has drawn on research topics such as game theory, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology in his policy writings. And the Conservative party politician emphasized his respect for researchers, saying that the "scientific enterprise is one of the most intellectually exciting things happening in the world today."

Willetts also sought to persuade reporters that the coalition government realizes that basic research is unpredictable and can't be programmed to provide an economic windfall. "I understand the crucial importance of blue-skies research. Scientific research can't all be reduced to utilitarian calculations," he says.

The science minister did note that any large commitments of public money will have to be carefully justified, even within the sciences, given the precarious nature of Britain's finances. "It is not possible to exempt science from scrutiny ... the boom has now come to an end," he says. Supporters of the U.K. Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, a proposed biology superlab in London, may have reason to feel nervous, as Willetts declined an opportunity to endorse the project, saying the coalition government had just begun to analyze the funding proposal for the mammoth project.

Willetts acknowledged that other countries, such as the United States, have invested in science as part of economic stimulus packages, but he argued that the United Kingdom couldn't do the same, saying "the state of our public finances is particularly vulnerable. ... It is going to be tough. ... There is a cash constraints on what the government can afford."

Willetts has been on the job only a few days, so he offered no concrete policy changes and he failed to answer a question on whether Britain should devote more of its science funding to the top universities or more widely spread the wealth, as has been the recent practice. But he did touch on a variety of other topics that have drawn the attention of U.K. scientists.

Space Policy: Willetts applauded Britain's record in developing space technology and called the newly created U.K. Space Agency an "excellent idea." But, he argued that the agency was crippled because it didn't have authority over all space-related budgets now controlled by multiple agencies. The previous Labour government, and its science minister, "had not made any progress at putting [space-related] money into a single pot." Willetts vowed to make that a goal.

Scientific Advice: Willetts stopped short of calling for proposed guidelines on ensuring the independence of scientific advice to be codified into guidance to governmental ministers. He noted that such action could amount to creating a "treaty between warring tribes" rather than fostering mutual respect and trust between politicians and scientists.

Climate Change: Without any prompting, Willetts noted he accepted the evidence of human-induced climate change and called it a "great pity" that the furor over leaked e-mails from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia had "eroded confidence in the fundamental principles of climate change."

Research Assessment Exercise (RAE): This complicated peer-review process rates university research and influences how U.K. governmental funding is distributed. The Conservative party is on record as wanting to delay the next-generation RAE, which planned to incorporate economic impact into its reviews. Willetts added his own skepticism about that change, saying, "We cannot reduce science to an economic balance sheet." He even questioned whether the expensive, time-consuming RAE was the best way to evaluate where funding should go.

Hybrid Embryos: A reporter noted Willetts had missed a key vote on whether the United Kingdom should allow research into so-called hybrid embryos in which human DNA is inserted into animal eggs. The minister said he couldn't recall why he missed that vote, quipping that he should have gotten his "alibi" straight before meeting the media. He then added, "I think it's fair to say I was concerned that the pace of some of these proposed scientific experiments was running ahead of what our culture was willing to accept."

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