Ministers and scientists traded blows yesterday over the Government's threatened cuts to science funding.
David Willetts, the Universities and Science minister, said the balance between research and teaching in universities had "gone wrong" and the planned squeeze could result in a stronger link between academics and business. But a former head of the Medical Research Council, Professor Colin Blakemore, said research was crucial to the future of the UK and it was impossible to tell in advance which research projects would yield fruit. "That is the nature of research. Sometimes it doesn't work," he said.
Mr Willetts was speaking the day after Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said scientists should build links with industry, "commercialise" more research, and abandon work that was "neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding".
His remarks angered universities and scientists. Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, said they signalled that the UK was no longer a country aspiring to scientific leadership. "It is sad this government appears willing to risk one of the few areas where the UK has a genuine competitive economic advantage," he said.
Mr Willetts said in the current public spending austerity drive, taxpayers could only be expected to fund the highest quality research. Addressing vice-chancellors he said the idea that research was "what really counts" in higher education needed to change. "We are not going to stop funding all the research that goes on at the moment. We face the problem that we have public spending running way ahead of what we can afford, so there do have to be some reductions," he said.
"We need to be better at applying our research to practical, commercial purposes. That's not always a matter of spending money."
Professor Blakemore said: "Britain is a small country with declining resources. Our only hope is innovation and to produce innovation we have to produce the basis of innovation, in research."