Waldegrave offers vision of science creating wealth: White Paper shows Government seeks to reduce numbers training for PhDs and create framework for involving industry and marketing in research

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday revealed its vision for the future of British science and technology in a White Paper which has been widely trailed as the most important event in science policymaking for 20 years.

The document, Realising Our Potential: a strategy for science, engineering and technology, reveals that the Government believes one of the best ways for Britain to capitalise on its scientific talent is to train fewer young researchers to PhD level.

The White Paper clearly signals that science must be subordinated to the needs of industry and wealth creation. The Government believes that the traditional PhD does not meet industry's needs. It will encourage more taught MSc courses, and fewer PhDs.

The new policy has been formulated by William Waldegrave, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet minister responsible for science and technology.

Mr Waldegrave is adamant that he does not want to direct science from Whitehall, but he will be able to determine more tightly than any minister in decades what type of research should be done.

'You have got to choose,' he said. He highlighted the life sciences as one area of great promise. But, he warned, 'There is not a linear model where innovation goes from lab to industry . . . You have to have a better framework for getting industrial and marketing decisions in earlier.'

The White Paper 'puts science and engineering back where it belongs - on the top of the agenda for solving our current problems and raising our future prosperity - and closer to the heart of government,' he said.

Reactions to the new policy have been mixed. One eminent scientist, who asked not to be identified, described the White Paper as 'anti-science'. The Science and Engineering Research Council said 'an opportunity has been missed' and expressed disappointment that Mr Waldegrave was unable to promise new money.

Senior officials in other government departments who need science to underpin policies relating to environmental protection and human health are concerned by the very sharp focus on wealth creation.

But Dr Richard Sykes, chief executive of the pharmaceutical company Glaxo, welcomed the paper: 'It represents a real attempt to bring all the information together and to formulate clear policy and objectives for the future.' He thought the new approach to post-graduate education would be more flexible - 'There are too many PhDs at present and not enough of them are employable.'

Ian Harvey, chief executive of the British Technology Group, said yesterday that the White Paper had helped place wealth creation on the agenda. But he said the real shortfall in R & D spending was down to industry. He said Mr Waldegrave's challenge now was to ensure that industry listened. He quoted recent figures from the Confederation of British Industry and the Department of Trade and Industry which show that the United Kingdom's top 10 companies in terms of R & D spending do not appear until number 35 on the international lists.

Mr Waldegrave aims to get better value for money from the pounds 6bn the Government spends on science and technology. He will publish an annual 'Forward Look', a statement of strategy by all government departments. Priorities will be guided by a 'Technology Foresight' exercise, jointly conducted by industry and the science and engineering communities, to identify the areas that might bear industrial fruit.

Mr Waldegrave will chair a new Council for Science and Technology, to advise the Government on policy. The existing five research councils, which channel money to the laboratory bench, will be reorganised.

The Science and Engineering Research Council is to be dismembered. The expensive 'big science' subjects such as astronomy and planetary science and elementary particle physics will be hived off into a Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. The Agriculture and Food Research Council will be reorganised as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

All the councils, which will come into being on 1 April 1994, will be managed by a part-time chairman, with industrial experience, and a full- time chief executive. They will have to recruit more staff from industry. They will now also be brought firmly under central control by the appointment of a director general of research councils, a civil servant answerable to the Office of Science and Technology, the Permanent Secretary, and to Mr Waldegrave.

There will be yet another scrutineer of how well the councils are delivering 'exploitation' of science and technology. Mr Waldegrave's department is taking over from the DTI responsibility for the Link scheme, which aims to bridge the gap between science and industry, and expects its steering group to provide advice on the councils' performance.

None of the proposals will need legislation, and there is no promise of additional money to ease the difficulties of transition. Neither will there be any tax incentives to promote R & D in industry.

(Photograph omitted)