With portfolio, without magic wand

election' 97; Charles Arthur met Ian Taylor, Minister for Science and Technology, and found he was keen to continue current policy

Arriving at the front door of Ian Taylor's constituency office in Weybridge, Surrey, I was surprised to hear the sound of stamping feet - like a crowd cheering on their hero. It was a little early for a ginger meeting, both in the campaign (which then had four weeks to run) and in the day - it was only 11.30am.

The answer became clear when the door was opened: the noise was an old- fashioned printing machine, stamping out copies of leaflets reading "New Labour, New Danger". Meanwhile, the Minister for Science and Technology was busying himself: the prorogation of Parliament had given him the chance to set up at home with his e-mail, he explained. His seat is a safe bet: in 1992 he had the second highest percentage of the popular vote in any Tory constituency (behind only John Major). Boundary changes have enlarged the constituency, but the majority will probably remain.

Science - it's hardly been out of the headlines for this government. Disagree? Think of BSE; Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease; global warming; the thinning of the ozone layer; the deaths from the new variety of E coli bacterium; the destruction of a pounds 500m rocket carrying years of past and future British scientific research after take-off last summer; Dolly the cloned sheep. All make a difference to our economy and health. Logically, so does the governing party's approach to science and its emphasis and funding.

When it came to science policy, Ian Taylor had one point to make straightaway. "Given that I am the minister now, it would be pretty funny if I said I was going to do something completely different. Continuing and following through policies which I firmly believe are right is part of the strategy. We're not promising to do something we have never done before."

So: no rocking the boat. The ship of Conservative science policy will remain broadly on course. The question is, what course? And is the direction in which we've been sailing for the past five, 10 or 18 years the right one?

The following basic questions were provided by the British Association for the Advancement for Science. None of the parties was given advance notice of them, or saw the other parties' responses.

How do you propose to have science and associated issues represented at Cabinet level?

They already are. We have a science minister in the Cabinet - Ian Lang [President of the Board of Trade] and we have the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), who has access to the Prime Minister and Cabinet committees. He has the right to sit on committees and can turn up to every one, to listen and make his point, and he does. Frankly, these are where the key decisions are made.

There was a great myth that science was demoted when the Office of Science and Technology (OST) was taken out of the Cabinet Office [in 1995, when it was put into the Department of Trade and Industry- the DTI]. The "Cabinet Office" isn't a powerful department. It deals with the machinery of government, but it isn't a sponsoring department. In the DTI, we made it clear we weren't downgrading science, but making it more closely associated with delivering for the DTI.

What proposals do you have, to raise the quality and standards of science and mathematics teaching at GCSE and A-level? In particular, how would you attract excellent scientists into teaching?

It's a marvellous question. To borrow Tony Blair's phrase, we can't wave a magic wand. Less than 2 per cent of teachers have an engineering background. We're trying to get early retirees; if we can teach those people to teach, they can bring that to education. That should raise the total quality of teaching in the school environment. But overall, we'll continue to develop the strength of the National Curriculum.

Do you think the Internet will have an effect on teaching - turning teachers into observers of children who learn?

The Internet is phenomenal. We have to make it available in schools, but in a way that's relevant to teaching. You can't just switch on a computer and hope the pupils will become better educated. It doesn't replace books, but it can open up the world beyond books.

What intentions do you have regarding the backlog in equipment investment which is troubling senior industrialists, plus the pounds 500m shortfall in basic equipment for research? (A report by the pressure group Save British Science last August reckoned it would cost pounds 500m just to bring university labs up to health and safety standards.)

A report by PREST [Manchester University's scince policy research body] showed that in many cases the problem wasn't as severe as it was claimed to be. But we recognise problems in two areas - the need to keep up with health and safety items for teaching laboratories, which may not be possible to fund under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) - that's about pounds 50m. Second, and more difficult, the case where people joining industry from university aren't experienced in using the latest equipment. It's absurd to think that universities will be able to keep up, so what we have to do is create centres of research excellence. It's a collaborative issue.

But in many cases, the universities are saying they don't have the equipment.

I don't accept that. There are equipment problems, but they aren't insuperable. We are going to look much more at centres of excellence, collaboration, and working with industry. In the long term, industry has an interest in this, too.

Basic research funds have been declining in real terms for many years. What are your intentions regarding halting the decline, and re-establishing modest real-term growth - possibly linked to GDP performance?

There has been no real-term decline in the science funds. If you take the science budget, it has gone up by 20 per cent in real terms over the past 10 years.

The problem about research in government is that there has been a decline in military expenditure. If you strip out those figures, then in real terms basic research has done very well, in the context of the overall budget decisions that have been taken.

Harry Kroto, the 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, seems to disagree.

But he has benefited from grants from the research councils. There's research to show that for every pounds 1m we spend, we get the highest number of citations in the world. [By the OST, published in Science last year.]

It all depends what measure of output you use. But I think British science can hold its head up high.

On salaries, are you aware of the relative decline in academic salaries over the past 15 or so years? Should it worry you? What are you going to do about it?

Of course I'm aware, because academics draw it to my attention. That's for negotiation between them and the universities. I think you'll find universities are trying to solve it. But I'd have to kick that over to the Department for Education. Let's just say, though, that I have uncovered a good deal of ingenuity among vice-chancellors.

How do you propose to work with industry to stimulate greater market demand for high-quality scientists and engineers - and to reflect that demand in more attractive career opportunities and salaries?

I think that we're winning that battle. I'm heartened by the response to Science Week and the Year of Engineering Success. We're trying to publicise the figures, which I find extraordinary - that the average starting salary for an engineering graduate is pounds 15,200, whereas for all other graduates it's pounds 12,500 - approximately. The unemployment level among engineers is 3 per cent, compared to 5 per cent for most other graduates, and 6.6 per cent nationally. I think those deserve more publicity. It could encourage youngsters to carry on with those subjects because they can see a more attractive future.

Why should a scientist vote for you?

Well, I think that neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour...

No, this isn't about what they won't do - it's about what you will do. Why vote for you?

Because we have protected and developed the science base in this country, and also launched a series of targeted programmes to make sure we don't miss out - such as Foresight and the Commission for Biotechnology. We will continue to make sure that we zero in on key sectors that we believe need a helping hand.

We have the right framework in place, the research councils are working very well, and we have dealt with the need to get greater efficiency from the money spent via Prior Options, and I think we have the right entrepreneurial attitude in the UK.

Finally: suppose that you win again, and are minister of science and technology. What's the one thing that you would want to have achieved by the end of the next Parliament?

One thing I would want, would be to achieve tangible proof that British business realised the importance of the science base and therefore improved the percentage of sales revenues spent on research and development. The reason I put it that way is that I believe the science base is alive and well, but there are things we could do better - such as the transfer from the science base into business of the ideas we need in the modern global community.

This is the second of three interviews with the major parties on their science policies. Your comments on the parties' approach are welcome. If there are enough, they will be collected and appear on the Tuesday before the election. Write to the Science Editor at The Independent, or e-mail carthur@independent.co.uk.

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