Science of neglect; ANOTHER VIEW

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is astonishing, disappointing, even disgraceful, that the Prime Minister visited Newcastle yesterday where the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual festival of science opened but that he could not find time to call in, even briefly, to meet the president, Sir Martin Rees, and wish this science week well. Apparently, he had to meet businessmen for lunch. Almost as surprising was his refusal to call at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, which is being hosted by Newcastle at the same time as the BA festival. This is the first time the contest has been held in the UK and the first time not in a European capital city. But the event seems to cut little ice with the Prime Minister.

John Major's action in putting businessmen before science has a logical inevitability about it. After all, he has moved the Office of Science and Technology to the DTI under the watchful but not very enthusiastic eye of the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, who has quite enough on his plate anyway. Even the Research Councils, which channel public money to scientists at the laboratory bench, are increasingly being dominated by industrial members and their short-term approach to research and development.

The notion that industrialists should influence the nation's R&D policy is odd to say the least. Earlier this year, the chairman and chief executive of Oxford Instruments, Dr Peter Williams, when giving the annual DTI prestige lecture on Innovation, pointed to the poor record of UK companies in R&D. They prefer to put their profits into dividends rather than research, unlike our competitors. The privatised power industries have axed all but very short-term R&D. So one could be forgiven for wondering what we are doing putting industrialists on to the research councils at all.

Of course, there are exceptions: the pharmaceutical industry, Oxford Instruments, of course, and a few others spring to mind, but they can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The market-led strategy of the Government does little for posterity, and the demise of long-term R&D in the UK is one of the more spectacular failures of government policy. Adam Smith would certainly not have approved. He had a healthy understanding that the market cannot deliver everything.

The recent sale of the National Engineering Laboratory to the German company Siemens is the latest illustration of short-term gain leading to long-term folly. One of the topics being discussed at Newcastle his week is "Science and the parliamentary process". It should be an interesting session! But how much more interesting it would have been if the Prime Minister himself had bothered to turn up.

The writer is Professor of Energy Conversion at the University of Newcastle and presenter of the television programmes 'The Great Egg Race' and 'Take Nobody's Word For It'.