Science chiefs' budget attacks were suppressed

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Indy Politics
OUTSPOKEN and damaging criticisms of Government policy written by its senior advisers were suppressed by two successive Secretaries of State for Education and Science, John MacGregor and Kenneth Clarke.

Papers obtained by the Independent reveal that the Government was warned that it had to find an extra pounds 95m for last year's science budget. Mr MacGregor responded with less than pounds 13m.

However, by double-counting some allocations, the Government was able to publish figures claiming that the increase was pounds 33m.

Within months, the shortage of cash precipitated emergency cost- cutting measures including the closure of a major international laboratory, the Nuclear Structure Facility in Cheshire - a decision that, in a rare breach of protocol, was publicly criticised by President Bush's chief science adviser. Small grants to individual researchers were cut by half, and the cutbacks prompted the first full debate on science in the House of Commons in living memory.

Mr MacGregor suppressed publication of the warning, given in May 1990 by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. Previously, the Government had always published the board's advice.

Mr Clarke, his successor, provoked a public outcry over obsessive secrecy when he refused in December 1990 to publish the board's reaction to the Government's spending decision. Insiders believe that Mr Clarke was taken aback by the 'pretty aggressive' letter he received from the board and felt that, were it published, he would have to write a rebuttal.

William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister charged with reversing the Whitehall culture of secrecy, released the documents in response to a request from the Independent. He assured the Commons on 18 May that 'our presumption will be that information should be released unless there are pressing public interest reasons for secrecy'. A spokesman for Mr Waldegrave said: 'It was considered sensible that they (the Board) should be free to make any comment they wished - in confidence. I cannot comment on why that was the one not to be published.'

The document is a sustained 27-page indictment of the Government's policy towards science, written by Britain's most senior scientific administrators. Even the restrained civil service prose is unable to conceal their dismay.

It records that the advisers 'are acutely disappointed' with the Government's plans for spending on science and it 'recommends strongly that those spending plans should be revised'. Otherwise, the research councils would not be able to 'sustain their obligations to science and to the nation.'

The board emphasised that its proposed pounds 95m increase for 1991- 92 was 'constrained' by its consciousness of the other pressing demands for increases in public spending. The money would allow scientists to pursue 'the most timely and most promising programmes with the greatest potential for advancing science and the nation's interests. They are opportunities which should not be spurned lightly'.

Mr MacGregor spurned the board's advice, leaving it to Mr Clarke, who succeeded him in the winter of 1990, to announce how poor the settlement was.

The board's chairman, Sir David Phillips, warned that government spending was 'substantially less than the sums needed to sustain the health of UK science'. Sir David wraned that instead of being able to start new research projects as scientific knowledge expanded, the scientists 'will need to reduce existing programmes'.

Sir David's letter continued: 'On the present government plans, the proportion of the nation's wealth deployed through the science budget will have declined by 15 per cent between 1981 and 1994. This is in marked contrast to the situation in our principal competitor countries, which are investing significantly more in research.'