The Cabinet's R & D man: 'We are taking steps to redress the balance' - David Hunt tells Tom Wilkie that science will not be undervalued while he is responsible

Click to follow
Last week was an anxious time for David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet minister with responsibility for science.

It was not the burden of office, nor even the prospect of being interviewed by a science journalist, that was weighing on his mind. Like thousands of other families across the land, the Hunt family was awaiting A-level results.

The news for Mr Hunt's daughter was good: one A and two Bs. The news for the scientific community is good as well. The recently appointed science minister may be a lawyer, but his daughter has chosen science and hopes to study biology at Durham University. Her younger brother, now aged 16, is intent on studying mathematics, chemistry and biology to A-level, with the prospect of a scientific career beyond. Conversations over the family dining table about the excitements and the tedium of a life in science will now be infused by personal as well as political interest.

The scientific side of Mr Hunt's job received little coverage in the media when John Major announced the reshuffle of his government, which took Mr Hunt from the Department of Employment to the Office of Public Service and Science, and which transferred William Waldegrave, the previous incumbent, to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Perhaps because of the lack of media interest, some members of the scientific community have voiced fears that Mr Hunt will take less interest in science than his predecessor and devolve such matters to his junior, Robert Hughes.

Mr Hunt expressed disappointment at the lack of attention to science on the part of the political press, 'I regard it (science) as one of my most important responsibilities.' He was at pains to dispel the fears that he might delegate on science: 'I have something to prove to those who make those comments and I shall prove them wrong.'

In what might be interpreted as an oblique criticism of previous arrangements, under Britain's first prime minister to have received a scientific education, Mr Hunt remarked on his sensitivity to the 'feelings of the community that there has been for a considerable length of time an undervaluing of science and engineering. We are now taking steps to redress the balance'.

The leitmotif of his conversation was the need ensure that 'science is at the heart of government'. And, of course, in his more politically visible role as Mr Major's chief of staff, chairing key cross- departmental Cabinet committees, Mr Hunt has the clout to ensure that his interests do not fall off the bottom of the priority list.

Only a few weeks into the job, Mr Hunt's themes are of continuity and paying tribute to his predecessor. Mr Waldegrave was the first Cabinet minister with a primary responsibility for science to have been appointed since Lord Hailsham in the late Fifties. In his short time in the post, the cerebral Mr Waldegrave produced a White Paper that reorganised the research councils, which act as a conduit for government money to the scientist at the laboratory bench. The White Paper also set out a vision, almost an obsession, that science, engineering and technology should serve the purposes of 'wealth creation'.

For Mr Hunt, too, the intimate connection between science and 'social and economic well-being' is a vital strand in government policy. The Government's hopes reside in part with the 'Technology Foresight' panels, which have been set up to bring industrialists and scientists together to discern the technologies that will be important some 10 to 20 years in the future and to highlight the scientific and technological developments that must be made now. This sort of exercise is an international phenomenon, with both Germany and Japan having carried out similar efforts at peering into the technological crystal ball.

The other strand of continuity is the emphasis on 'public understanding of science'. Mr Hunt's first official engagement wearing his scientific hat will be at next month's annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science - a fixture in the calendar of events bringing science to the British public. It is critical to focus on the public understanding of science, Mr Hunt believes, and to extend knowledge of the linkage between the fruits of science and social and economic well-being.

Enthusiasm broke through the politician's caution when the subject turned to Mr Hunt's experiences in his previous Cabinet post as Secretary of State for Employment and, in particular, the new Modern Apprenticeship scheme, which he was responsible for pushing through.

British industry has for decades been lamentably deficient in training its workers. The free market is unable to remedy this because it provides no incentive for any company to train up its staff. In fact, unfettered competition penalises a company that invests in its human capital. Money spent on training is wasted if the worker, by now more qualified, is 'poached' by another company offering higher wages. When individual companies act as rational economic agents in a competitive marketplace, everyone is poorer, and the workforce less well trained and deriving less job satisfaction than if things were arranged differently.

Mr Hunt's solution - 'I could go on about this for hours,' he remarked - is partnership between industry and government to provide more than 200,000 apprenticeships in key high-technology industries. 'I hope it will mean that youngsters will get a four-year apprenticeship that will lead to companies keeping them on afterwards. It's no accident that other countries are looking with interest at our scheme.'

There are parallels with Mr Hunt's last job. Science resembles vocational training in that it, too, costs money but the benefits cannot be captured by any one company - no one can patent Newton's laws of gravity, for example. It falls to government to fill the gaps, a matter that some true-believers in the power of the marketplace to solve all problems found difficult to stomach in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's administration. Mr Hunt would not comment directly on future funding for science but, significantly, he quoted Mr Major's 'very clear commitment' that 'the science base will remain a high priority in the future'.

Mr Waldegrave's departure was lamented by some scientists because they appreciated his intellectual approach. But the Cabinet Room is not like an Oxbridge senior common room. Mr Hunt, and therefore science, sits closer to the heart of government than his predecessor. And Mr Hunt has to answer to others, more important still than the scientific community or the Prime Minister. Just remember those A-level results.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments