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UK science minister quizzed: round two

The UK’s House of Commons science and technology committee had its first public outing post-election today, with a chance for new members to quiz the country’s science minister, David Willetts. Adrian Smith, in charge of science and research at the government’s department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS), also fielded some queries.

As last week at the meeting of the Lords committee, nothing much could be said about what everyone wants to know – impending budget cuts to British science funding. Even within those constraints, the committee’s questioning did not strike me as too impressive – though it would be harsh to judge that on an introductory meeting. So Britishly understated was chairman Andrew Miller, that he referred to last year’s almighty rumpus over the sacking of drugs adviser David Nutt as a “little difficulty”. The Times’ science editor Mark Henderson noted (on twitter) that there wasn’t even any waving around of the Royal Society’s recent report, with its forecast of 20% cuts meaning ‘game over’ for UK science.

Still, for the keen UK science followers, many of who will have followed the main points of the hearing via twitter (#scipolicy), there were a few points of interest. Adrian Smith, at BIS, said he’d asked only the generalist learned societies (such as the Royal Society) to send him letters on the impact of science cuts, to avoid an “oppositional fight for the cake early on” as each discipline justified its own cause. The idea hasn’t quite worked, as media reports on cake-scrapping attest (Research Fortnight, Nature).

Willetts, after further reiterating his support for technology clusters, the Technology Strategy Board, and man-of-the-moment Paul Nurse, repeated his maxim that there were too many small “sub-critical” centres in the UK, which should be concentrated into fewer, smaller centres. Last week he said there were 22 nanotechnology centres, this week he said 24; but in any case, there will be a lot less come this time next year.

Science engagement also got more discussion, with Willetts pondering how public money added value to this activity. With science journalism flourishing, he said, is the need for direct public support of engagement less than it has been? The throwaway comment was surprising: Willetts has a reassuring grasp of most of his brief, yet conflating science journalism and engagement is worryingly cavalier.


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