Cut and run

There’s a joke about the Stoics, the ancient philosophers who believed that the highest virtue was to remain calm and composed no matter how many outrageous misfortunes life threw their way.

The joke goes something like this: ‘Jason is an absolutely first-class Stoic as long as everything’s going fine.’ Not the best gag in history admittedly, but a slightly modified version might strike a chord with the UK’s research councils, which have just seen their budgets unexpectedly cut to the tune of £68m.

‘Gordon was an absolutely first-class supporter of technology innovation as long as nothing went wrong,’ is an even worse joke, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which will bear by far the largest chunk of the cuts, certainly isn’t laughing.

The EPSRC channels funds to leading-edge engineering and technology research projects involving universities and companies. Exactly the type of activity lauded by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as vital to the UK’s future economic wellbeing.

Unfortunately for the research councils, the £68m is now needed to cover unexpected expenses at the DTI, including the rearguard action to minimise the damage caused by the collapse of MG Rover.

To meet these costs the DTI has been forced to raid the research budgets, causing many in the engineering and scientific communities to scratch their heads in puzzlement. If innovation is so important to the nation’s future, why is its piggy bank the first to get smashed when something unexpected crops up? How can we plan for the long-term when the government carries out a smash and grab raid at the first sign of trouble?

Whatever way you look at it, it’s not the most consistent of signals, especially as the government – to its credit – has a good track record on science and technology funding.

The cuts are unwelcome but not crippling, but it is possible that the situation tells us something significant about the DTI and the chokingly short leash on which it is currently held by the Treasury.

The DTI is a funny old government department these days, with responsibilities ranging from innovation and energy policy at one end of the scale to cracking down on dodgy loan sharks and pyramid selling schemes at the other.

Its future has been the subject of much speculation, with observers noting how many of its functions could be shifted relatively painlessly to elsewhere in Whitehall, and the fact that some of its bigger responsibilities – including energy and innovation policy – may well merit departments of their own.

It will be interesting to see what a Gordon Brown-led government means for the DTI.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online