Steve Connor: Has science found a friend in Willetts?

Lab Notes

Conservative MP David Willetts is the new science minister, and from what little I've seen of him so far, scientists should be pleased. Although he graciously concedes that he is not someone who knows a lot about science, it is clear that he is mightily impressed with it as both an intellectual pursuit and as a means of revitalising the economy.

Willetts has been variously described as a thinking person's MP and a one-man think tank. His book, The Pinch, has been lauded for its intelligent analysis of why the post-war baby boomer generation has stolen the future of their children and children's children, or at least broken the unwritten contract stating that one generation should pass on its wealth to the next.

Willetts comes from the humanities – no surprise in that for a British politician – but he clearly has a voracious appetite for all things intellectual. He has even tried in his book to employ some of the new ideas of evolutionary theory and game play; so he is evidently not someone who is shy of engaging in scientific discourse.

But he becomes science minister at an invidious time. Government-funded science under the previous Labour administration has done well. Over the past 13 years, the science budget, paid by the taxpayer, has doubled, and top politicians from prime ministers down went out of their way to extol the importance of science to the country and to the economy.

But everyone knows that "the boom has now come to an end", as Willetts said last week when he had an informal meeting with the science press. The question is by how much the science budget will suffer in the coming cuts, and how much of a defence of it Willetts can muster in the Cabinet.

The seven UK research councils that dish out the dosh have been told to come up with future spending plans based on a variety of financial scenarios, from flat funding at 0 per cent, to cuts of 10 per cent or 20 per cent, and so on. Needless to say, there are some very anxious scientists out there in the publicly funded sector – and one must ask why do we need seven research councils rather than just two or three?

Previous Conservative governments have tended to penalise "blue-skies" research, which has no obvious practical use, in favour of more applied science. But Willetts insisted that he is committed to this more theoretical research, which has allowed Britain in the past to punch well above its weight in terms of science, as well as providing the sort of technological advances that could never have been envisioned from the outset of the research.

"I understand the crucial importance of blue-skies research. Scientific research can't all be reduced to utilitarian calculations," he said. "You cannot reduce science to an economic balance sheet."

But at the end of the day, how much blue-skies research is actually done in Britain comes down to how much money the Government is prepared to spend on it, because by its very nature it is not the sort of science that most commercial organisations are prepared to pay for. "It is going to be tough, and there are going to be some very difficult decisions," Willetts warned.

Despite the financial gloom hanging over British science, Willetts shows every sign of being on its side in the battle for Treasury cake. For a start he has a brain (some say two, although that joke demonstrates the anti-intellectual streak running through British society), and secondly he seems to have a deep interest in anything that furthers our understanding of a problem – which is what science is especially good at doing.

*****

Craig Venter, the genome entrepreneur and now creator of synthetic life, has had something of a bad press over the years, especially in Britain. We have tended to portray him as a rapacious capitalist, red in tooth and claw, preying on the intellectual property tied up in the natural world of DNA and genes.

Like all stereotypes, however, it was not always accurate. Indeed, Venter once told me that if you really want to make a judgement on who benefited most in the public-versus-private race to sequence the human genome, then you should look at the patent applications made by some of the scientists on the government-funded side of the battle.

Venter is the classic example of someone we loved to hate, but for the wrong reasons. He still incurs the wrath of environmentalists concerned about the commercialisation of genetic technology and the release of dangerous new life forms into the world. But the reality is that he's a rather likeable man who doesn't conform to the other stereotype we have of the boring scientist – despite the beard.

It is also clear to me that he really is concerned about the environment, and not just because he carries out research into the microbes that live in the sea from the deck of his magnificent yacht. Venter may not be to everyone's liking, but we'll need more scientists like him if human civilisation is to survive the coming ravages of the 21st century.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Detective Tam Bui works for the Toronto Police force
news
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Darrell Banks’s ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’
music
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: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick