Science Viewpoint: Are you prepared to bet on success, Mr Waldegrave?: Tom Wilkie wonders if scientists and engineers really are at the top of the Government's agenda

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The Independent Online
THE WHITE Paper on Science and Technology, which the Government published last week, 'puts science and engineering back where it belongs - on top of the agenda for solving our current problems and raising our future prosperity' - at least, according to William Waldegrave, the chief architect of the Government's new policy.

Strangely, however, Mr Waldegrave is not going to put scientists and engineers at the top of the agenda. Quite the opposite. All his reforms involve the effective demotion of the distinguished scientists and engineers who run the research councils and institutes. Brought in above their heads will be industrialists and those with experience in commerce.

It is an odd way to demonstrate one's faith in science and engineering. But the move highlights a peculiar lack of symmetry in government policy. Mr Waldegrave is clearly besotted with the idea that government-financed science has a customer - the wealth-creating industries of the UK. If industry thinks we have a scientist mountain to rival the EC butter mountains, then so be it: the Government will train fewer scientists to PhD level in order to accommodate industry's desires.

If scientists are not doing enough exploitable research, let's bring in the boys from industry to tell us what the scientists ought to be doing. Let us, in brief, make science more industrial. But in this ideology of the marketplace, it has clearly never occurred to Mr Waldegrave that British industry might not always be an informed customer. Where are the proposals that might make British industry more scientific?

Stakes are high. If the policy set out last week is wrong or deficient, the economic price will be a further decline in Britain's international industrial competitiveness. But there is a political price, too.

There can be no excuses this time. Mr Waldegrave's plans give him more centralised direction over British science than any minister in history - despite protestations to the contrary.

If British industry fails to deliver over the next few years, it will not be possible to lay the blame at the traditional doors. It will not be the fault of the 'two cultures', because the purpose of Mr Waldegrave's political existence is now to overcome such barriers; it cannot be the fault of the scientists being too abstract and remote from industry, because it is Mr Waldegrave's responsibility to make sure they are not. He has taken charge: now he must deliver.

Of course, there are many let-outs because there are many factors crucial to economic and industrial success other than science and technology. A world recession or high interest rates would derail industrial recovery, no matter how soundly based on innovative British technology.

So here is a simple criterion by which the nation can gauge whether Mr Waldegrave has succeeded in putting science, technology and engineering at the heart of our national life. In a way, the index of success is the inverse of what Mr Waldegrave can achieve by ministerial fiat. Do not count the number of industrialists on the research councils and the committees advising the Government - that is what Mr Waldegrave can achieve with a stroke of his pen.

Count instead the number of company directors in Britain today who are scientists or engineers - qualified to PhD level, say. In five years' time, count them again. If Mr Waldegrave has been successful, the proportion should have risen significantly.

Mr Waldegrave has offered a case of champagne to anyone who can explain to him the nature of the elementary particle known as the Higgs boson. What will he wager on the success of his policy for science?

(Photograph omitted)