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David Willetts outlines vision for science

Susan Watts | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

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.


  • Comment number 1.


    Now that 'Priggy Boy' is going to get kids ACTUALLY THINKING, shouldn't 'Two Brains' get the science-orientated ones THINKING SCIENTIFICALLY?

    A lot of our lettered 'scientists' have demonstrated that they don't know how to do that!

    How's the English teaching going?

  • Comment number 2.

    Triage? Novel. Might not be optimal but could be the least worst option.

    Though money can always be found, if you know where to look:

    A worthy complement to such as WRAP , NISP , etc , though I appreciate many are being rationalised to effect savings.

    And while studying is good, one always hopes that support might also be found for some doing, too.

  • Comment number 3.

    Plus, spending money well on sharing information is always useful...

  • Comment number 4.

    I dont see the vision in what David willets is saying, re-shuffling the pack is not the same as vision.

    A mistake which often seems to be made by politicians and journalists a like.

    Science is what science is, like the human mind, it is how we choose to harness its power to change things that really matters, that is the debate which is forever conspicuous by its absence ever since the end of the cold war.

    They have tried to create a new urgent clear and present danger to focus our scientific and engineering efforts on in the notion of 'climate change' but that is not galvenising or focussing people, climate change is a minor and debatable sub-set of a much bigger and far more clear cut danger called 'the unsustainable nature of the global economic model'.

    The latter does not get any attention though...I wonder why that would be?

    Maybe something to do with the geopolitic of who the current model keeps in a position of unsustainable wealth, consuming stuff we dont need so that human beings in a factory in China can work 10 hours a day six days a week to gain a subsistence wage.

    Is that what we call 'progress' or 'Growth' in an age made unrecognisable from that of only 2 generations ago through the application of science and its cousin engineering.

    What a waste.

    To use some song lyrics.

    ''Rise up, rise up, as if you have a choice''

    Anybody who can see the logic and honesty in the above tell all your friends, raise awareness generally of the real truths underlying all this current turmoil, only by raising awareness generally will things change, dont expect the media to do it, they won't.

  • Comment number 5.

    two brains are better than one....sometimes....

  • Comment number 6.

    "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?"

    The answer to this question is quite simple - if you discover a useful phenomenon, you have much more information about it at that point than if you hear a report of a discovery made by someone else, because

    1/ If they report it through formal scientific institutions (eg peer-reviewed journals or conferences), there is lag of 6-18 months between the discovery and the report. The discoverer will not sit on her hands during that time.

    2/ If they do a "splash" in other media (Newspapers, TV), the process itself ensures that the description will be incomplete, and probably distorted. Filling in the gaps and correcting the distortions will delay any group trying to catch up.

    I can't think of any other "economically vital" activity where we would be relaxed about handing a one or two year lead to our competitors.

  • Comment number 7.

    On a further point - this and other reports give the impression that at present support for publicly-funded science is being studied, with a view to setting priorities for future cuts. My impression (as a scientist currently seeking another fixed-term contract) is that research posts offered by universities have declined by ca 10% in the past six months, while those directly offered by government departments and agencies are covered by the civil service recruitment freeze. Significant cuts in science funding are already occurring.

  • Comment number 8.

    #6 dinosaur - Those are very valid counter arguments. But still, the simple fact is that more than 95 per cent of the discoveries are done elsewhere. So for all those discoveries, the question is how to make the most of them. And we know that other countries have been economically successful without getting into the basic science - witness how South Korea and Taiwan have succeeded in semiconductors despite not developing a capability in the fundamentals of the relevant fields until after the fact. We had loads of expertise in the basic science, but have none of the fabrication plants, none of the jobs...

    I've done a longer blog on Willetts' speech at

  • Comment number 9.

    " 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." Really? Why
    then did George Osborne cancel the recent tax break for the games
    industry in Dundee which this 'cluster' had been lobbying for and
    eventually succeeded in winning from Labour prior to the Election? 'Tories Fail To Invest in Games Growth Industry'

  • Comment number 10.

    "For example, I'm a firm believer in clusters – best defined as a low-risk environment for high-risk activity. I think of places like Dundee, where, according to the city council, some 350 computer game and creative industries companies are based around Abertay University. The area around Dundee is now home to about three quarters of all British jobs in computer game development. At the same time, Dundee has made a name for itself in life sciences, where first-rate research has attracted significant investment from multi-national businesses."
    (David Willetts)

    Nice to be noticed. But in the Budget George Osborne rescinded the decision by his predecessor Alasdair Darling to give a tax break to
    the computer games industry - which did not go down well in Dundee!

    David Willetts should also recognise that Dundee University built
    up the city's reputation in life sciences using public investment.
    It is the clustering of brilliant scientists that leads to success.

    The interaction between the creative industries sector and science
    is also worth contemplating: scientists and science students also go to the theatre (Dundee Rep has a permanent ensemble) and enjoy the fruits
    of the art college as much as the rest of us - and the river and hills.

    Dundee is a fairly affordable place to live - and scores very highly on environmental criteria in most student surveys. That means people want
    to stay - but that is also why getting the tax regime right can matter.

    The games industry is only part of the story of Dundee's reinvention too
    and it is interesting to trace back its industrial and scientific origin.
    A pioneering course at Abertay for sure played a huge part but Dundee's
    Duncan of Jordanstone Art College (part of Dundee University) developed
    an animation course building on the city's existing cartoons reputation.

    The Maths department of Dundee University had a reputation in numerical analysis which also played a part - and there was input from Siemens in
    teaching a joint course with Abertay as I remember linked to gaming ...
    And before that a tradition of engineering-based invention in Dundee -
    Clive Sinclair latched on to that in the 1980's and there is also NCR.

  • Comment number 11.

    #8: There's an interesting (if rather depressing) commentary on big pharma's record in developing discoveries here:

    P Cuatrecasas: “Drug Discover in Jeopardy” Journal of Clinical Investigation 116 (2006) 2837


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