Letter: No constraints on research

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The Independent Online
Sir: So, subsuming science into the DTI is a "bad idea, badly presented", says Tom Wilkie ("No Minister, this is not a good idea", 25 July). It seems to me that Dr Wilkie is concentrating too much on form and ignoring the content, which is what really matters.

As to the initiative dubbed "Equal", we can all join in the jokes about acronyms but the new Minister for Science and Technology Ian Taylor's aims of helping people to stay active as long as possible must be a central one for a civilised society with an ageing population. My own research council, in common with the Foresight Exercise, has concluded that the research issues here deserve the highest priority. An imperative for the quality of life is given attention alongside the priorities for wealth creation - exactly what so many have clamoured for.

All of us in the research councils and, I believe, the great majority of the research community, welcomed the White Paper Realising our Potential and all of us - including the DTI - are signed up to its principles. What we see surfacing now are the differences of opinion on how best to implement. Where should science sit in government structures? I have not yet heard an answer that is immediately and self-evidently right.

What science in government needs is a project co-ordination mechanism to tackle issues across lines of command. Return on intellectual assets must be maximised by freeing creative people to address agreed priorities in cost-effective ways that are natural to them and to the way in which science progresses, and may not necessarily sit easily with civil service rule books or political propositions. All successful companies of any complexity have learned how to operate like this, and so have the research councils. Government, via the Annual Forward Look, for example, has made the brave and welcome commitment to do this for science - but Whitehall doesn't yet seem to have mechanisms to deliver. The DTI is a good base from which to start the learning process. Give them a chance! By all means let them know the jury is still out but don't condemn the accused.

Yours faithfully,

Dai Rees

Chief Executive

Medical Research Council

London, W1

26 July

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