Britain cannot afford to be first in every area of science, the Government's science minister warned today.
David Willetts, in his first speech as science minister, told an audience at London's Royal Institution that just being first is not the most compelling argument for funding scientific research.
He said he's much more persuaded by the argument that we need enough cutting edge research to make the most of first class science coming from overseas - a process with the catchy title "absorptive capacity".
Mr Willetts also made clear his sympathy for pure science, which will please many in the research world. He said he'd been persuaded by the need to give scientists the space to pursue their ideas, citing what he described as the paradox that very significant impact can come from pure science, and suggesting that Sir Alec Jeffreys did not predict at the outset the extraordinary impact of his work on DNA fingerprinting.
The minister also said he believes the "scientific way of thinking" - justifying a position by argument and evidence - will become increasingly important in our society, citing his own experience as part of a coalition Government.
But as his department works out which areas of science to cut, he set out this pointer for those arguing their case. "There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to achieve something for your country. And fame, competition and pride are human motives that we find in every walk of life. But none of this is an economic argument for being the first person to make a scientific discovery. Why does it matter economically that we should be first or that something should be discovered by a Brit? "
He said the cuts will not result in "equal misery" across all scientific fields - suggesting that some areas of science will feel the pain more than others. And in an aside that may worry the Russell Group of universities he did not rule out maintaining individually excellent departments even in a university which is not itself deemed among the elite.
The minister also officially announced today that he's putting on hold for a year a Labour Government exercise designed to weigh up the economic "impact" of scientific research. He said he's not yet convinced that the methods used to assess such impact are "sound", and that he wants to make sure that scientists are more broadly on board with this process before taking it further.
He wants less emphasis on what he called the "sausage machine" approach to innovation, whereby pure science, leads to an individual spin-off company, which attracts venture capital and results in a Porsche in the car park. Rather he supports "clusters" of excellence, quoting claims by Dundee's city council that hundreds of computer game and creative industries have grown up around Abertay University.