The Science Minister, David Willetts, was in thoughtful rather than visionary mode at the Royal Institution this morning I felt. The old hands among you will know by now that a Ministerial speech headlined as ‘a vision’ rarely lives up to its billing. But let’s not mark him down on this. On science as in other areas the Government are still in a process of disassembling the current, before putting together the chosen pieces to form a cohesive strategy. Nonetheless we did, as he promised, get some sense of his priorities.
Indeed, given the rather haphazard way in which this event appeared in diaries, today was definitely less about grandstanding (thank goodness) and more about getting some messages out (principally through the media) before the parliamentary recess and a long hot summer of negotiation on the Comprhensive Spending Review (CSR).
David Willetts denied on The Today programme early this morning that he was, or would be, making a pitch to HM Treasury. But there was certainly a sense today that he was laying out the business case he wants (us?) to present – quite a different thing.
In quick fire form these are the messages I took away with me: science will be key to economic growth but cuts there will be; the challenge is to ensure better use of the science base and to create the best environment/space in which science can take place; openness and innovation rather than micromanagement of research will be key; policy driven by reason; linking, sharing and collaboration – he clearly favours the development of ‘clusters’ of expertise – will be key themes; he favours a move towards more concentration and; the dual support system and Haldance principles are not under question.
As trailed in yesterday’s Times Higher, Mr Willetts also announced a delay of a year of the REF Impact proposals to allow more thought and consideration about how research is measured and assessed. The die-hard critics may still be disappointed that the proposals are not being stopped in their tracks. But, to me, it looks a sensible and reasonable way forward to ensure it’s got right. After all, it would be ironic would it not, if a Government that was already searching wide and far for evidence of impact were to put on ice entirely the very exercise that would help the community help it to think through this challenge in a more mature way?
I was pleased to get in a question at the end about where the Minister saw medical research charities in his overall vision. But, in his answer in which he mentioned the Office for Life Sciences, OSCHR and Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, I sensed that he saw the policy direction on medical and health research funding as in a different place to the wider picture on science. Possibly, but it lives within in, and is not immune to, developments in the wider system. That is the challenge for the Science Minister and us all.
See you next week for the Government’s White Paper on Health.