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.

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