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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral