No, Minister, this is not a good deal

Subsuming science into the DTI is a bad idea, badly presented, says Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
In a bland, windowless room in the bowels of the Department of Trade and Industry, Britain's new Minister for Science and Technology, Ian Taylor, last week struggled manfully through a press conference to answer the barrage of criticism that greeted the news of his appointment.

He failed.

For science, the tenure of Margaret Thatcher's government represented "the years the locusts ate". The first science graduate to become prime minister (she studied chemistry) proved to be a disaster for science in Britain. John Major's decision in 1992 to appoint William Waldegrave as the first cabinet minister with special responsibility for science since Lord Hailsham, some 35 years earlier, was therefore universally welcomed.

Now, however, after Mr Major's cabinet reshuffle, scientists find that instead of dealing with an organ-grinder, in the shape of a cabinet minister, they are being fobbed off with the monkey. The president of the Royal Society does not like it; the president of the Institute of Physics and former Astronomer Royal does not like it; the scientific journal Nature greeted the move with a withering contempt surpassed only by the comments of the former (Conservative) minister for science Robert Jackson.

Last week, Mr Taylor tried hard to argue convincingly that subsuming science within the DTI and allocating it to a minister at the bottom of the political pecking order was actually a good thing. Mr Taylor's statement made all the right noises. The DTI "are not driving research short-term," he said, "nor is the move a takeover of the science and engineering base by short-term business interests".

But his department's primary concern - the delivery of science into industry - kept peeping through. At times, he soundedreminiscent of Kenneth Baker, who when Secretary of State for Education and Science recommended that research scientists should nestle up to industry and "discover the joys of the business lunch". In 1988, the Thatcher government (with Lord Young's DTI in the lead) reversed the policy that Mr Baker had so colourfully characterised, and told scientists that industrially relevant research was the business of industry and that public funds would go only to basic, curiosity-driven research. Now the wheel has come full circle and, proclaiming the worth of science for the sake of wealth creation, Mr Taylor warned that "there are too many universities that fail to interconnect with industry".

In an attempt to calm nerves and illustrate the point that science for wealth creation and science for "quality of life" are not incompatible, Mr Taylor set out his big idea, his strategic aim: to "Extend the Quality Life" of our population. (The idea was so transparently a hastily cobbled- together concoction that the DTI's documentation could not agree on a spelling for the acronym: EQUAL or EQuAL were both on offer.) The aim is to help people to stay active for as long as possible as they age, he said, and it will be achievable "via our great strengths in science and engineering, medical research, our strong pharmaceutical and healthcare industries and our excellent health service. EQUAL will be of enormous benefit to all. There is no downside."

However, the minister chose a rather unfortunate way to illustrate his idea. He set out his vision of a future doctor's surgery: a room bristling with hi-tech gadgets, on-line to expert advice from virtual-reality medical consultants, with the patient enclosed within a portable scanner.

By coincidence, one of Britain's leading medical scientists and most eminent doctors, Sir David Weatherall, the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, has just published a powerful attack on this view of medicine in his book Science and the Quiet Art. Sir David is an unshakable believer in the relevance of basic science (and of technology) to medicine, but he is dismissive of those who hype laboratory "breakthroughs" in the belief that research results will feed through quickly into clinical practice. Nor does he have any time for inhuman hi-tech medicine: "Our hospitals are viewed as rather terrifying and dehumanising institutions. Intensive care units are so full of frightening machinery and monitors that it is often difficult to find the patient at all."

One should not blame Mr Taylor personally for having to pick up the pieces of a lousy deal apparently stitched up between the Prime Minister and the new First Secretary. But on his first outing, in just one area of science, the new minister provided a superficial and naive caricature of the sort of medical practice that has just been rejected by one of this country's most thoughtful scientist-doctors. Next time, Mr Taylor had better make sure that he is briefed well enough to be EQUAL to the task, if he wants to carry any conviction.