Not Another White Paper on Science and Technology?

We are promised a new White Paper for science and technology by the end of the summer. As I recently revisited the White Paper entitled Realising Our Potential--a Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, produced in 1993 by a previous government, I was surprised to see how, 7 years later, most of the issues identified there are of relevance today and still require solutions. It is to be hoped that the document from current Minister of Science David Sainsbury will address some of the key issues.

Much effort needs to be channelled into the area of Ph.D. student training. The development of a 4-year course, including a wider repertoire of skills than merely laboratory know-how, should become a key feature. Students should have wider training in communication skills and the political process. Their training should equip them to be a part of a career structure beyond one postdoctoral period or two short-term contracts. Indeed, the penetration of the political arena and the civil service by scientists with the rigour of scientific questioning could lead to a sea change. Honesty in politics and science should be the essential ingredient in the use of scientific advice in policy-making. There can be no substitute for engaging the public at different levels.

Ph.D. stipends will have to be increased to entice our brightest young people to stay in science as demonstrated by the recent initiatives of the Wellcome Trust. Indeed, the pay of academic and clinical scientists needs uplifting. For too long a nation has benefited from the dedication and enthusiasm of our scientists, engineers, and technologists in higher education, training the next generation of teachers, scientists, and technologists on a pittance.

Within new structures and training programmes a White Paper must also address our failure to ensure that at all levels both genders are given opportunities to reach the top decision-making levels across science and technology. We must ensure there is a balance of both sexes at all levels in universities, schools, and industry. The lack of women at the higher echelons cannot, under any circumstances, be defended.

The innovation drive of the White Paper will be to maintain and build on the science base by increasing knowledge interaction between this base and business, as well as amongst businesses themselves. Innovation is vital to this process, and economic growth depends on our knowledge, skills, and creativity. However a detailed analysis of innovation is not about discovery and new products alone, but it also involves new processes, organisation, marketing and distribution methods, and techniques.

Universities still argue for their autonomy but are setting up their research leagues in chosen partnerships, such as the Russell Group. We need a national strategy developing an integrated approach to research, teaching, training, and the other activities in the Higher Education sector. Universities should be encouraged to share joint research and teaching programmes on a regional basis. At the same time, the Research Assessment Exercise and Teaching Quality Assessment currently under examination would be viewed in the long term and would take account of these new interactions. The interaction between industry and the university system can and does work, but as the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee reports, there are serious steps yet to be taken and industry in general is not welcomed in some ivory towers. Perhaps if departments in universities were effectively managed, trust could be built up and money directed to them directly from government without top-slicing.

U.K. expenditure on R&D is not as substantial as that of our international competitors. In terms of our gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP, Britain ranks fifth amongst the G7 countries--well behind Japan and the United States. Whilst the government has announced, with Wellcome Trust support, an increase in spending of £1 billion over the 3-year period from 1999-2002, a recent S&T Commons Select Committee report showed how R&D in many of the government departments has decreased, particularly in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Large cuts in these departments offset the government increase for university research and laboratory infrastructure.

Perhaps the minister will correct these weaknesses by setting up a national strategy, extending beyond the usual 1-year or 3-year funding cycles. Scientists and technologists expect a government preaching a knowledge-based economy, e-commerce, and other Internet applications in the fields of education and health to deliver a strategy and resourcing over a long period.

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