Science: Wanted: a boost for British research: The Government is expected to publish a White Paper on Science and Technology this week. Will it herald a much-needed change of priorities? Tom Wilkie, Nicholas Schoon and Susan Watts report

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The Independent Online
AT IMPERIAL College London, Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, a Nobel prize- winning chemist, sits and hopes for the money - a few thousand pounds - he needs for his research. He is just one of many top-flight British research scientists who have been denied funds, even though, as the Independent reported recently, his work has provided the foundation for important advances in the drugs and chemical process industries.

Every evening British people sit down to watch some of the world's best television programmes. They are made in Britain, but the sets we watch them on are made by the Japanese, the French, the Dutch or the Finns.

Each year, the Government wastes nearly pounds 2bn of taxpayers' money on military research and development without ever seeing a pay-off in the civilian economy. In 1990, the Government spent seven times as much on military research and development as the Japanese government, two and a half times as much as the German, and nearly 10 times what the Italian government spent.

When it comes to civil science and technology, the Government spends just two-fifths of the sum allocated by its German counterpart and less than half what is spent by the Japanese and French governments.

The White Paper on Science and Technology, expected to be published on Wednesday, offers a chance to change priorities. It has been widely touted as the best chance for science and technology in 30 years, and it has attracted more than 800 contributions and suggestions from industry and science.

William Waldegrave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the cabinet minister responsible for science, has toured the laboratories and the research institutes talking up the Government's tattered image among scientists. After years of neglect and denigration by ministers, Mr Waldegrave raised expectations that, at long last, here was an administration that would take science and technology seriously.

These expectations are likely to be thwarted when the contents of the White Paper are revealed. 'Rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic,' was the comment most often heard last week. It is not really Mr Waldegrave's fault. He faces two problems.

The first is that there is little wrong with the research carried out in Britain's universities that could not be cured by an extra pounds 400m a year and a better career structure for scientists. Yet Mr Waldegrave cannot promise significant additional funds for civil science - he has to negotiate money from the Treasury.

The second problem is that Britain's failings as a technological nation do not lie in the university laboratories and research institutes over which Mr Waldegrave has stewardship, but in the inability of industry to capitalise on the nation's scientific talent. Yet responsibility for industrial policy lies not with Mr Waldegrave but with the Department of Trade and Industry.

Insiders have been trying to put the best interpretation on the White Paper, arguing that it is one move in the Prime Minister's strategy to promote the interests of manufacturing industry after more than a decade of neglect under Margaret Thatcher. John Major cannot move too quickly, these insiders say, because of the continuing strength of the right wing of the Conservative Party, which is ideologically opposed to intervention.

The Government has begun its attempt to formulate a proper industrial policy by looking at its technology policy. That policy appears to be one of 'back to the future': the signs are that Mr Waldegrave is in the process of reinventing his Office of Science and Technology as the old Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). The roots of the DSIR lie in the crisis of the First World War that revealed the miserable state of Britain's industrial technology in the early years of the century.

But the DSIR was an experiment that failed and, following an investigation by the Secretary of the Cabinet, Sir Burke Trend, it was wound up in 1965. In its place were created independent research councils to support basic science in universities and research institutes. To promote research that might be applied to industry, Sir Burke recommended an Industrial Research and Development Authority. This quickly became the Ministry of Technology (MinTech) and then the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that we know today.

Under Lord Young, the DTI abrogated its role of promoting industrially relevant research, announcing in 1988 that the Government would withdraw from 'near-market research'.

The White Paper is expected to signal a reversal of Lord Young's policy and to promote closer links between government and industry. But the cash has gone and is unlikely to be restored. And it will not be the DTI's but Mr Waldegrave's White Paper that will demand of scientists that their work underpin the nation's wealth-creating industries. There will be clear signals that the Government is more interested in research that can have some foreseeable industrial application than in 'blue skies' work.

Here are some of the deck-chairs due for rearranging: the Science and Engineering Research Council (Serc), which channels about pounds 600m of taxpayers' money to support scientists' work, will be dismembered. It will become a body focusing on the engineering and physical sciences, with a mission to help create wealth through high technology. Its biological research will be transferred to the Agricultural and Food Research Council, rechristened the Biology and Biotechnology Research Council. 'Big science' - astronomy, space, and the physics of the fundamental constituents of the material world - will be hived off to a separate body.

The advisory machinery will be overhauled: the Advisory Council on Science and Technology (Acost), which has had no visible impact on government policy, will be wound up, as will the Advisory Board for the Research Councils (ABRC).

Acost is only the latest in a long line of eminent bodies that have failed to influence government policy. The late Lord Zuckerman, the greatest scientist-administrator of the post- war era, remarked in his memoirs of an earlier advisory council that although Clement Attlee had created it, 'as Prime Minister, the matters that came before the council were of little or no political interest to him'.

The challenge facing Mr Waldegrave and his White Paper will be to prove that science and technology are matters of continuing political interest to John Major and the other ministers around the cabinet table.

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