Science at the Conservative Party conference – curtain down calls an end to well-rehearsed choreography in the nick of time

After three weeks on the road it is only to be expected that the fringe meetings take on the choreography of a well-rehearsed show. It certainly felt that way with tonight’s  Royal Society fringe. The performances were faultless but there was never any real hope of artistic interpretation.

The science minister, David Willetts, sang well from his hymn sheet but did not, dare not, go beyond the notes or melody we have heard before. It must be a strange existence being a minister ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR); so much to possibly say, so much that can not be said.

At times tonight’s fringe almost felt like the summing up by respective lawyers in a legal case with the final decision now left to Judge Osborne and his cabinet. All the talk around about the conference has been how David Willetts and Vince Cable are persuaded by the arguments but that those to be persuaded are burning the midnight oil in HM Treasury. So I think he and others are probably finding it helpful that the lobby remains active against ‘cavalier’ cuts.

He said he had found the discussion illuminating and expressed the hope that, whatever the outcome in two weeks time, ‘people will feel we have reached a judgement that is fair’ and that they would work with the coalition government to ensure science in the UK remained ‘vigorous, health and strong’.

I was interested in Willetts’ recollection of his early career days at HM Treasury and the nightmare scenario that then existed of the government having to take its orders from the IMF. It perhaps explains why his peers in the coalition government seem so adamant about going so hard at cutting the budget deficit and quickly.

If I am honest, it was one of the new players tonight who interested me most. Richard Lambert from the CBI who seemed more willing to play the scenario game than anyone else. He concluded his opening remarks by saying: ‘A squeeze is absorbable but it has to go with a strong  statement of clear intent.’ ‘Spending should be focused on human capital,’ he said.   It was also a sobreing moment when he astutely pointed out that in terms of cutting public expenditure at BIS, the department only has three pots to play with – Higher Education, Training and Science, ‘ the rest are just crumbs.

You can always trust a journalist to cut to the chase. The last question of the evening went to a journalist from the Sunday Times who asked what a 15% cut would mean for science.

But with catering staff waiting to set up for the next show, the curtain went down on the this final performance before David Willetts was given the chance to answer. Just in the nick of time.

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