The man with no ministry

A year ago the scientific community was waiting expectantly to see whether the new Labour government would reverse cuts in science and technology research funding. A year on, and in the week of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual Festival of Science in Cardiff, its president, Professor Colin Blakemore, is upbeat. He […]

A year ago the scientific community was waiting expectantly to see whether the new Labour government would reverse cuts in science and technology research funding.

A year on, and in the week of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual Festival of Science in Cardiff, its president, Professor Colin Blakemore, is upbeat.

He had been expecting to warn the festival of the risk of the UK becoming ‘a second-rate scientific power’. Under the outgoing government’s policies, science funding had suffered its first real decline since the war. But, with the Labour government’s comprehensive spending review, there is new optimism.

‘The signs are very positive,’ he says. Science funding has received a boost of £1.1bn for the next three years, including £400m from the Wellcome Trust. ‘That clearly indicates the Government’s commitment to science,’ he says.

But, he warns, it must only be seen as the first step. The rise in the cost of scientific research has outpaced inflation. ‘Science in Britain is dreadfully underfunded. Compared with our main industrial competitors Britain ranks 16th, behind Iceland.’

The UK has managed to maintain the quality of its research and its reputation partly by resting on its laurels. The rate at which expertise is built up or declines in a given area is slow measured in the lifetime of the researchers in that field.

At the same time, salaries have been maintained by cutting investment in equipment. However, this borrowed time is running out. Up to £500m is needed to replace obsolete equipment in universities.

Blakemore is reserving a final judgement. ‘Unless there are major changes and the comprehensive spending review is just the start, Britain will slip very quickly. I would judge the Government’s commitment by the extent that it follows through on this first step,’ he says.

He questions the relationship between science and technology and Government policy. The central thrust of Blakemore’s presidential address at the festival on Tuesday, on ‘The Challenge for Science’, was to launch the idea that science should get a ministry of its own.

‘It’s time for an independent Department of Science with a cabinet minister,’ he says. ‘This doesn’t imply the relationship with industry is a trivial one, but recognises that science is central to so many other areas of policy health, education, environment, transport, defence ‘

Will this be the opening shot in a campaign? Blakemore hasn’t sounded out colleagues. ‘I don’t know if my view is shared by the rest of the scientific community. If it’s an idea of its time it will take off. The initial reaction is likely to be no chance. But this government has shown itself responsive to lobbying on science issues, for example over BSE.’

What of the impact of the Foresight programme and its influence on the allocation of research funding? Blakemore admits to ‘ambivalence’.

‘Attempts to prioritise research have not been a spectacular success story. Compared with past attempts, Foresight has done rather well. It hasn’t too dramatically distorted the perspective while drawing the attention of the scientific community to industry priorities.’

But, he fears, ‘it might be used to disguise the inadequacy of investment in R&D by industry. We need a very big increase in industry funding to match the competition’.

The number of school leavers who read science at university has remained static over the past decade, despite huge expansion in the universities. But the UK is only out of line with other countries in one crucial instance the number of science or technology graduates who use their degree in their career. ‘In France, Germany, the US and Japan the figure is 80 90%. In the UK it’s 50%.’

Here, the Association’s festival helps raise the profile of science. But besides producing soundbites on robots, does it achieve anything?

‘It’s the biggest media science event of the year,’ he says. ‘Every newspaper in the country will run science stories this week. Sometimes these are trivial, but it gets science firmly in the public view.’

Blakemore, an eminent neuroscientist who has specialised in the mechanisms of vision and the early development of the brain, is a frequent broadcaster and is passionately committed to advancing the public understanding of science.

Many scientists, he says, are reluctant to engage in public debate as they feel it detracts from their main role of research. But he believes scientists are answerable to the public because that is where their funding comes from.

Problems arise, he says, when research is almost entirely in the hands of industry, because ‘clearly it is not often in the interests of industry to make public its strategies and goals. One of my concerns about genetic manipulation is that it is largely in the hands of one of two multinational companies.’

Colin Blakemore at a glance

Age: 54

Education: BA and MA in Medicine, Corpus Christi college, Cambridge; PHD in Physiological Optics, Berkeley

First job: Physiology lecturer, Cambridge University

Current job: Professor of Physiology, Oxford University; director of Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience; British Association for the Advancement of Science president, 1997-98