A bit of a blunder? Yes, Minister

Ian Taylor needn't know about quantum physics, but he should understand the science budget, says Tom Wilkie
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Earlier this month, Britain's minister for science, Ian Taylor, spent just four hours at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science - the country's largest gathering of scientists. Last week, he spent four days in the Caribbean, signing a technology collaboration agreement with Cuba. On a human level, one can understand why Mr Taylor might prefer the West Indies to Newcastle, but with professional priorities like these, it is perhaps not really surprising that Britain now seems to have a science minister who does not actually know what science is.

In the last reshuffle, John Major moved responsibility for science out from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry. The reaction from the scientific community was one of outrage as they feared the institutional inevitable: science would disappear without trace into the maw of that vast department, preoccupied as it is with many other problems of state.

However, it now appears that the shift has placed an intolerable burden on the new minister himself. Before getting responsibility for science, Mr Taylor creditably and energetically applied himself to the Government's attempts to transfer technology out of the laboratory and into British industry. He developed policy to promote best technological practice and oversaw its execution.

It must have seemed sensible to use the man who was involved in getting science into industry and assign to him the responsibility for generating that science in the first place. But the tidy solution is the wrong solution. Priorities and needs of industry are different from those of fundamental scientific research. Policies that must be developed to sustain them are different, and it is expecting too much of a man already committed to one line of policy to be able to alter course easily and take up a different tack. It might have been better to have appointed a new minister who did not have any "previous".

Mr Taylor's problems became evident during a press conference he gave during the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this month. He emphasised the efforts he had made, before taking on the science portfolio, to direct government policy and public expenditure to the transfer of technology. This was, he rightly said, good for science as well as for industry. Then, presumably because he had been badly briefed, he blundered: it was a pity, he went on, that such expenditure was not counted as part of the science budget.

His civil servants should have told him that in 1981, the econometricians of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sat down to define what categories of public expenditure could be considered as supporting scientific research. The results of their deliberations were published as The Frascasti Manual, which specifically excludes technology transfer, the very category Mr Taylor wishes to include, from the science budget.

It is a sad commentary on how unscientific are our politicians and how politically naive our scientists that we have come to accept as a given idea that no science minister in a British government will ever have been inside a scientific laboratory until such time as he is handed the science portfolio and has to make a ritual ministerial visit to be photographed alongside the men and women in white coats. We do not expect our ministers for science to tell a mass-spectrograph from a DNA sequence analyser. But we do expect them to find their way around the balance sheet of public expenditure; for the science minister not to know even the financial definition of science is staggering.

The Frascasti Manual categories have been observed every year for more than a decade by the British government when it publishes its annual review of government-funded research and development. Mr Taylor will have to put his name to the next such review. Let us hope he and his civil servants will actually have read the document first.