Scientists 'betrayed' by shift of research funding to DTI

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The Independent Online
STEVE CONNOR

Science Correspondent

Scientists have attacked as ''disastrous'' the Government's decision to move science funding from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Professor Denis Noble of Oxford University said yesterday that the Cabinet reshuffle, giving the DTI control of the Office of Science and Technology, was a ''betrayal'' of past promises by John Major to give science a higher profile.

Professor Noble, a member of the Save British Science Society and secretary- general of the International Union of Physiological Sciences, said the move threatened to ''strangle the creativity'' of scientific research.

The science journal Nature also lambasts the decision in an editorial this week. ''Pure malice is probably not the reason why the applecart has been overturned, but it cannot be excluded ... But whatever the motives, the changes are potentially disastrous.''

Giving the DTI responsibility for science research will increase the pressure to fund only the sort of projects that promise a short-term financial return, the critics believe.

The Nature editorial asks: ''How will fundamental sciences such as particle physics and radioastronomy, which cannot even pretend to pay their way by contributing to wealth creation, justify continued support in this setting?''

Professor Noble, who was scheduled to address the issue at a meeting last night of the Physiological Society in Oxford, said the Prime Minister had promised in 1992 to give science a greater role in Government when it set up the Office of Science and Technology within the Cabinet Office.

''I think the decision to move the office to the DTI is a betrayal of that promise made in 1992. We are now faced with the prospect that free- ranging scientific enquiry will be replaced by directed enquiry.''

Professor Noble said there had been no consultation on the decision to move the Office of Science and Technology. ''I have spoken to a large number of other people who are in Government committees right to the very top, and not a single one of them had an inkling.''

Professor Noble said it was plausible that the only two people who knew of this decision before it was formally announced were John Major and Michael Heseltine, past President of the Board of Trade and now Deputy Prime Minister.

''There is no evidence that this was thought out,'' Professor Noble said.

Even a former science minister, Tory MP Robert Jackson, has called the decision ''monstrous''. He said the DTI would regard the research councils' money as being available to support industrial research. ''A major strategic battle on behalf of fundamental science has been lost.''

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