Lara Croft becomes Britain's latest scientific role model

BRITAIN HAS a new ambassador for scientific excellence. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and barely out of her teens, her appointment might appear to be a blow both for youth and for political correctness.

But that would overlook her tendency to carry an Uzi submachine-gun, shoot people without asking their names, and wear sketchy clothes to cover her pneumatic figure. The new "ambassador", nominated today by the Science minister Lord Sainsbury, is Lara Croft - the digital heroine of the Tomb Raider computer game.

The choice might seem an unusual move by the Government, although given its disappointment earlier this month when the actress Emma Thompson declined its invitation to be a role model for young women, perhaps it decided that imaginary people are more biddable than real ones - apart from backbench MPs, of course.

Lord Sainsbury, however, is certain she is the right person for the job of representing the multi-billion pound British science base to the rest of the world. In a speech today to the Social Market Foundation about "Science and the Knowledge Economy", he is dismissive of previous promotional efforts for British science, which have "plumped for the safe option - Stephenson's Rocket rather than the Psion Organiser".

To reverse this, he says: "I want people to think of scientific achievements such as Thrust, the first supersonic car, rather than Stephenson or Faraday. I want Lara Croft of Tomb Raider to be an ambassador for British scientific excellence."

While Ms Croft is hardly in a position to refuse, she is often less than diplomatic. In the game she is a sort of female Indiana Jones who dispatches opponents with little negotiation and lots of gunfire. It is always possible that if she succeeds as an envoy for British science, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, will appoint her as an ambassador to excellence among hereditary peers.

However, the 10 million or so Tomb Raider players worldwide - most of them adolescent boys - tend to associate her with a different kind of excellence. Many have speculated about whether any "scenes" in the games would reveal her nude; some have even gone so far as to create them, using graphics software.

For Ms Croft, the latest appointment follows her being given "Millennium Product" status by the Design Council, granting her a place in the Millennium Dome. Nobody was available yesterday from Core Design, which devised Ms Croft in 1996, to say whether there will be revised "ambassador of British science" versions of Ms Croft - perhaps with Union Jack clothes - in future.