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Much ado about Cable

This morning, Vince Cable, the UK’s Business Secretary, delivered his first speech on science and innovation. The speech itself could be read as a tepid affair: It praised the UK’s historic excellence in science and technology and called for even more excellence in the future.

The British scientific community saw nothing benign in Cable’s words. The UK is facing heavy cuts, and British scientists and pundits were out in force to read between his lines.

First the facts:

  • Cable’s speech definitely implied that science would be taking it on the chin this fall, along with the rest of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

*He is against indiscriminate “salami slicing” cuts. Instead, he wants excellence to be funded over lower-quality work. This echoes the “excellence” rhetoric coming out many of Britain’s scientific elite at the moment, though again is short on details.

*He would like to see more tech transfer. One new idea, lifted from a recent report by Hermann Hauser, is to create a Fraunhofer-like set of labs that would be funded jointly by business and government. No one else seems to have been picked up on this concept (or the idea that it would come at the expense of some 60 Labour-era “centres of excellence”).

Now for the fun stuff, the rampant speculation. Over at Research Fortnight William Cullerne Bown suggests that Cable doesn’t understand fundamental research, and specifically, he’s under the mistaken impression that much is being wasted (an idea bolstered by the business secretary’s appearance on Radio 4 this morning). The blog of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK has a stark, if selective, comparison of Cable’s statements on science with those of other leaders from around the world. Roger Highfield discusses the question of whether the cuts are inevitable, one which he put to Cable himself at this morning’s press conference. Cable told him that nothing was set in stone and that scientists must scream “in the right direction”, which means “towards the Treasury department.”

Generally the feeling seems to be that Cable doesn’t really understand science, and that the cuts are going to damage the UK’s leadership (Cambridge was recently named the world’s top university in one ranking scheme).

My own little piece of titillation from the speech? Cable referred to the planned UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation as a “potential” cluster for innovation. Potential? Does that mean that the government’s commitment to UKCMRI is not yet finalized? Discuss.

with reporting by Jeorg Heber


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