No, Minister, this is not a good deal

Subsuming science into the DTI is a bad idea, badly presented, says Tom Wilkie

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.

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week