Science project

David Willetts
Minister for Universities and Science

To be science minister is an extraordinary privilege for me. Indeed, so much is going on that it’s not possible for me to cover every significant issue in science policy in this, my first major science speech.

There are areas that we can only really advance once the comprehensive spending review has been concluded. I do believe in concentration on excellent research, and excellence is to be found in individual departments. We have to be clear about the conditions in which excellence actually thrives and how much research funding we will be able to distribute.

I recognise that countries such as the US, Canada and France have reacted to recession by spending more on science, but their public finances are in much better shape than ours. And when I meet ministers from other governments at the EU Council on Competitiveness and Research, they are just as preoccupied with saving money as we are. These are austere times for us all. But this government wants science to emerge from this period to be strong, sustainable and effective.

I am an optimist about science’s capacity to do this, because the deep forces driving its growth and popularity are as powerful as ever. A very important stimulus for scientific advance is, quite simply, technology. We talk of scientific discovery enabling technical advance, but the process is much more inter-dependent than that. For example, imaging technology is driven by the demands of astronomers and then enables those same astronomers to make new discoveries. Meanwhile, it allows medical imaging to advance along the way, almost as a by-product of our age-old desire to look into the heavens. We are not always good at translating scientific achievement into engineering success in the UK, but there are areas where these links are strong. This combination of scientific research and technological advance creates extraordinary dynamism, both intellectual and commercial. I see it as one of my tasks to strengthen these links. That is why one of my ambitions is to try to ensure that the exciting intellectual advance of nuclear fusion – we are world leaders at Culham – also drives British technological and industrial development.

The evidence is overwhelmingly that scientic research can contribute to economic growth

The challenge we face is to make best use of our science base. Especially in a time of austerity, we inevitably think of the way it can contribute to economic growth. I strongly believe that contribution may come best if we encourage openness and innovation, not if we try to micro-manage our universities, direct researchers or count patents. If we get the environment right, the evidence is overwhelmingly that scientific research can contribute to economic growth.

A series of excellent recent reports have identified policy options for doing better in the future. I think of the report from the Council for Science and Technology, ’A Vision for UK Research’; The Royal Society report, ’The Scientific Century’; Herman Hauser’s report on technology innovation centres; Nesta’s recent work; and James Dyson’s very valuable report for my party, ’Ingenious Britain’. They provide the intellectual foundations on which we can set to work on the task of rebalancing our economy.

The way forward lies in exploiting an evidently outstanding research capability with clear potential, under the right conditions, to drive sustainable growth.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Willetts at the Royal Institution

David Willetts

Minister for Universities and Science Education


Studied politics, philosophy and economics at Christ Church College, Oxford


  • 1976 Head of Treasury monetary policy division
  • 1978 Moves to Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit
  • 1981 Head of Centre for Policy Studies
  • 1992 Enters parliament as MP for Havant; subsequently a whip, a cabinet office minister and paymaster general
  • 1996 Resigns from Standards and Privileges Committee
  • 2005 Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; subsequently Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills
  • 2010 Minister of State for Universities and Science at BIS under Secretary of State Vince Cable