Willetts, or won’t he?

Features editor

The new science, technology and universities minister, David Willetts, is famously known as ‘Two-Brains’, and at his first meeting with the specialist press yesterday, it was easy to see why. From his impressively high forehead and twinkling rimless glasses to his willingness to discuss the philosophy of science and his careful manner, he was every inch the cerebral thinker. He has the air of someone who would fit in rather well in many university science departments.

However, with the spectre of cuts in government spending hovering over… well, pretty much everything, Willett’s responses to questions came in for rather more scrutiny that you’d expect at what was basically a pleased-to-meet-you session a mere two days after his appointment.

Willetts isn’t a scientist or an engineer. That’s no surprise; there’s a shortage of both in parliament, and maybe the technology community has been a little spoiled by the presence of engineer and motor racing enthusiast Paul Drayson in the science chair for the past few years. Willetts did proclaim himself a fan of the scientific method, and a supporter of blue skies research, saying that research couldn’t be reduced to a ‘utilitarian calculation’ and declaring scepticism over the use of impact assessments in funding decisions. Space scientists and engineers will be happy about that, among many others.

But Willett’s characteristic careful phrasing and the long pauses he tends to leave when answering questions are a bit of a worry. Let’s be charitable here: it’s much better to have someone who actually thinks before he speaks rather than making off-the-cuff pronouncements.  However, when asked whether he was concerned that the more right-wing elements in the Conservative Party, who tend to be climate change sceptics, might influence environmental policy, this was his response: ‘Just for the record, I myself, as a layman, find the basic science of climate change, the effects of carbon dioxide on driving global temperatures up, even I can understand that straightforward simple scientific observation.’

You do find yourself wondering what his opinions on other parts of climate change theory are.

Willetts also said that he didn’t reject everything that Labour had done for science and technology over the past 13 years, and stated that he’d be seeking advice from others, namechecking in particular former science minister Lord Sainsbury and former LibDem science spokesman Evan Harris, who might well have had his job if he hadn’t lost his seat at the election. Again, the lack of partisanship is very welcome, especially coming from someone who has been a major architect of Tory policymaking; but I couldn’t help but notice he didn’t mention Lord Drayson. This might concern engineers, as Drayson is widely respected by this side of the technology sector.

Above all, Willetts said, science and technology can’t consider itself to be immune to cuts. But are cuts here a false economy? Many would regard funding of research, and support for new technologies — particularly in the energy sector — to be investment, rather than spending. Willetts rightly said that we can’t fund 13 percent of investment by borrowing money, but he also stressed that he, and his LibDem boss Vince Cable, believe strongly in the role of the technology sector as the main engine of growth and in the rebalancing of the economy away from financial services.

Spending decisions have to be made carefully, we all understand that. But there’s a real danger of the Treasury — the only department which lacks a scientific adviser — making decisions which save money in the short term but choke off potential growth. Willetts, as an old Treasury hand himself, might be the best-placed person to argue technology’s corner. We hope so. The sector needs an advocate.