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
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders