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UK science minister discusses tough times ahead

It’s no secret that difficult financial times lie ahead for scientists in Britain, so perhaps it was appropriate that David Willetts, the Conservative minister for universities and science, chose to give his first speech on research at the Royal Institution—Britain’s oldest scientific organization, which is currently teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Despite the venue, the new minister’s speech tried to be cheerful. He touched briefly on the public’s enthusiasm for science and the need for openness in the wake of climategate before moving on to the main focus of his talk: the budget. Just two weeks ago, David Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that many government departments, including those for science, would see their budgets slashed by at least 25% over the next four years. Willetts seemed eager to show how he intended to protect research as best he could. “I recognize my deep responsibility to the scientific community in these austere times,” Willetts told an assembled crowd of scientists and policy makers in the institution’s main auditorium.

His speech made very clear that he needed to persuade the Treasury to provide for science funding, and that would mean making the case that investment in research pays. But Willetts took issue with what he called the “sausage machine” model of economic payback produced by the previous Labour government. Rather than thinking of the research pipeline as a linear model leading from university lab, to spinouts, to venture capital investment, and finally industry, Willetts favours a more amorphous approach. He endorses “clusters” of small companies around universities, and told scientists he wanted to be largely hands-off, allowing innovation to happen organically.

In that spirit, Willetts also announced that he would suspend the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a newly proposed mechanism for apportioning roughly £1.5 billion (US$2.2 billion) in annual funding to universities. Many scientists were unhappy with the weight the REF gives to “impact,” including economic payback, when assigning funds. Willetts says that he will review that and other aspects of the REF, though he is unlikely to scrap it altogether.

In a press conference immediately before the speech, Willetts didn’t specify where cuts were likely to come. (“Our discussions with the Treasury are only just beginning,” he said.) But he did at least provide some clues as to his own thinking about how the cuts should happen. An across-the-board cut for everyone in the department of Business Innovations and Skills, which funds universities and research, is unlikely. Instead, Willets indicated that he and Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat head of the department, would chose winners and losers.

Choices will also be made within the research budget. Willetts said he wanted to encourage the very best research in Britain, echoing recent remarks made by such scientific leaders as Paul Nurse and Martin Rees, the respective incoming and outgoing presidents of the Royal Society. But he added that he believes in supporting scientific excellence on a departmental rather than a university basis.

He also indicated that some research might be halted to free up money elsewhere. “It may be better to get out of some activities altogether,” he said, without providing a clue as to which activities those might be.

Overall, Willetts’ words showed that he takes his role seriously, but they may prove cold comfort this autumn, when the real cuts will begin.

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