Letter: Research distinctions

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The Independent Online
Sir: Proposals in the Government's White Paper 'Realising our potential' (report, 26 May) include the dismantling of the Science and Engineering Research Council, with 'big science' concentrated in a separate research council.

Big science involves internationally co-ordinated projects, and there has been a wide consensus among scientists that a mechanism should be found to protect domestic science against the consequences of sudden changes in exchange rates. It is clearly improper that an unpredicted change of expenditure at Cern or the European Space Agency should affect the grant of, say, a chemist from the University of Newcastle.

Protection against short-term exchange rate fluctuations requires a technical solution from the Treasury (long-term adjustments are already covered by our international agreements). But, instead, the White Paper suggests the separation of scientists according to whether their programmes are large or small in scale.

There is a great danger in this proposal. It will produce a situation in which there will be, on the one hand, a research council for high- profile, internationally regarded, curiosity-based research protected by international treaties, and, on the other, a rump of unexciting, parochial 'British' science. To have done this for purely technical and organisational reasons does not augur well for the planning of science in this country for the 21st century.

Yours faithfully,

IAN BUTTERWORTH

Imperial College

London, SW7

28 May

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