Science at the heart of government

Podium; Colin Blakemore From a speech by the outgoing president of the British Association for Science at the Science Festival, Cardiff
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU CAN surely judge the significance that government attaches to any particular area of policy by the way in which it is represented in the governmental process. The scientific community welcomes the appointment, a few weeks ago, of Lord Sainsbury as Minister of Science alone, which is another clear signal of the importance the Labour Government attaches to science. However, one action above all others would confirm this government's commitment to science. I urge Tony Blair to establish an independent Ministry or Department of Science, with a seat in Cabinet for its Minister.

Liberated from the DTI, and with broader powers, the new Ministry could establish a more coherent management structure, extend consultative and advisory links to all the other arms of government, and co-ordinate the whole of science policy. An independent Ministry of Science would also be better placed, and have more authority, to orchestrate the response of different departments to unexpected and urgent scientific problems. The chaotic response to the BSE crisis provides a bitter example of the present inadequacies of co-ordination of science policy.

More than pounds 4bn has already been committed to cattle slaughter and compensation - public money down the abattoir drain. No event in modern times has more clearly demanded a rapid, well-planned and integrated response, but singularly failed to receive it. A Department of Science with a co-ordinating role might - just might - have prevented the worst of this tragedy.

An independent Ministry of Science should be given the resources and the links with other departments to help develop long-term strategies in areas for which science is relevant, including in the European and international arenas.

I can suggest one urgent topic for such strategic analysis. It is the demographic time-bomb of the world's ageing population, which is, in my opinion, still not being taken sufficiently seriously. By the middle of the next century, more than one in 10 of the population of Britain will be over 75. Our children's children will expect to live to 100. We must, as a nation, plan now for a massive unbalancing of society, in which fewer and fewer young adults are supporting more and more of the retired. This remarkable demographic trend is testimony to the success of modern medicine in keeping most of the body going. We may imagine that, as people become more confident of a long and healthy life, many will want to retire later.

But the quality of life, as well as the ability of the elderly to continue to work effectively and to contribute in other ways to society, is so often compromised by diseases and disorders of the ageing brain and nervous system - the one organ system in the body that cannot significantly replace or repair itself. Any strategic plan for the problem of the ageing population must give the highest priority to research on the human brain, including the devastating diseases that can transform the Third Age into mindless misery: stroke, motor neuron disease, CJD, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease.

One of the most important functions of a new Ministry of Science would be to help to shape the future of science education. The one comparison on which Britain falls down miserably is in the proportion of science graduates who secure employment as science professionals. While the fraction of the labour force employed in science and engineering R&D has risen steadily since the Seventies in Germany, Japan, France and the US, in the UK it has fallen. The reasons are fairly obvious. Scientists and engineers are underpaid, compared with other professionals, far below the average for accountants and managers. And there are just not enough jobs for scientists. Why not much better tax incentives for R&D; compulsory detailed reporting of R&D expenditure in annual reports; new schemes to encourage companies to sponsor undergraduates and employ them for periods between modular courses?

Ten years ago the British public didn't know much about science and didn't care. Now, they know a little more but care a great deal. I think that the public concerns about genetically modified organisms, about food safety, about cloning, and even about the use of animals in research, are a healthy sign of public engagement in national affairs, so much lacking in other areas of British life. It is the task of the scientific community to answer the public's concerns, and to respect that the people are the ultimate arbiters of how science can best serve this country in the 21st century.