Science policy

Clive Cookson

Scientific diplomacy has never been more important as a way of projecting “soft power”, Britain’s Royal Society said in a thoughtful report released today.

New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy was launched at the first event of the society’s 350th anniversary year – a gathering of 100 of the world’s scientific academies at its headquarters in London.

The report, drawn up at a joint meeting with the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, points out that scientific diplomacy has a long and successful history. Throughout the Cold War, for example, scientific organisations were an important conduit for informal discussion of nuclear and other issues between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Today science offers a particular opportunity for increasing contact with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

It also offers a route to governance of international spaces beyond national jurisdictions – including Antarctica, the high seas, the deep sea and outer space – which cannot be managed through conventional models of diplomacy.

David Milliband, UK Foreign Secretary, endorsed the idea at today’s meeting: “The scientific world is becoming interdisciplinary,” he said. “But the biggest interdisciplinary leap we need is across the boundaries of politics and science. On resource conflicts, global inequality, nuclear security and counter terrorism, science is our ally.”

However we must bear in mind this cautionary note in the Royal Society report: “It is important that scientific and diplomatic goals remain clearly defined, to avoid the undue politicisation of science.”

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Lord Drayson, science minister, may consider restructuring one of the government’s largest science and technology funding agencies after it was forced to withdraw 25 per cent of its studentships and fellowships following budget cuts.

In 2010-11 the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will have to survive on £20m less than the current year’s budget, and it has also been hit hard by currency fluctuations.

The devaluation of the pound has meant that subscriptions to international organisations, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), account for a much larger proportion of the STFC’s budget for next year – around 50 per cent of the total. But the council feels that membership of these organisations is worth the money spent.

The results for other areas funded by the STFC will include the 25 per cent cut in funding for researchers, and the end of a number of science projects based in the UK.

Nuclear physics was hit particularly hard, but astronomy, particle physics and space science will also have to absorb cuts. The STFC proposed “managed withdrawals” from a number of existing scientific ventures.

Scientists were dismayed by the news. Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, said the cuts “have the potential to kill off the UK skills base in nuclear physics…To have this at a time when the UK is discussing a nuclear new build programme… is almost comical.”

The STFC is a strangely structured beast. It was formed in 2007 through a merger of two other research councils which dealt with particle physics and astronomy, and also took responsibility for nuclear physics from a third council.

It is responsible for funding research students and fellows in these areas, as well as maintaining UK scientific facilities such as ISIS – a pulsed neutron and muon source – and the Central Laser Facility, both in Oxfordshire, and for paying subscription charges for memberships of international organisations.

Because the value of the pound is completely beyond the control of the council, and because it is understandably keen to retain membership of international organisations, devaluation will inevitably lead to the areas it can control, such as studentships, losing out disproportionately.

Lord Drayson said that he was keen to find a way round the cuts in a press release issued today in response to the STFC budget announcements, but he is very unlikely to be able to come up with any more money.

Instead he seems to be proposing a restructuring: “There are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single research council,” he says, and adds, “I will work urgently with the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.”

That suggests that the STFC’s days, at least in its current form, may be numbered.

Clive Cookson

A mixed bag of measures for science and innovation from today’s pre-Budget report.

The chancellor introduced two initiatives to support innovation and science-based industry: a reduced rate of corporation tax for income derived from UK patents, and an extra £200m for the government’s Strategic Investment Fund.

But there is also the overhanging threat of £600m savings – in other words cuts – in higher education and science spending.

As Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, put it: “The chancellor has sent mixed signals about the future of science and innovation in the UK. He is looking for a significant cut in investment in the nation’s research and skills base, whilst providing support for innovation that stems from it.”

On the plus side, the so-called Patent Box will introduce a 10 per cent corporation tax rate from April 2013 on UK patent income “to strengthen the incentives to invest in innovative industries”. It will apply to patents granted after the implementing legislation is passed in 2011.

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, which will eventually be the biggest beneficiaries of the Patent Box, welcomed the prospect.

Clive Dix, chairman of the BioIndustry Association, said: “The government has recognised that life sciences are essential to building Britain’s future, and the Patent Box shows that it is listening to the BIA and others in the UK life sciences sector.”

In the long run the Patent Box is likely become a valuable incentive for life sciences companies to locate in the UK, worth an estimated £1.3bn a year. But tax accountants point out that it will take several years for the benefits to appear, given than time-scale of pharmaceutical research and development.

”The implementation date of 2013 is unlikely to benefit companies until 2020 at the earliest,” said Andrew Packman of PwC. “We would support an earlier implementation date or the inclusion of existing patents.”

The £750m Strategic Investment Fund was set up in this year’s Budget to support advanced industrial projects. On Wednesday, Mr Darling added a further £200m to the fund – of which £150m will be devoted to low-carbon projects.

Although £600m savings are to come out of the higher education and science and research budgets, the report does not specify where any cuts will fall.

“The government cannot afford to undermine the research base if it is going to achieve its goal of a more balanced economy,” said Dusic.

Clive Cookson

Many senior scientists in Britain have been worrying about the impact a change of government in next year’s general election might have on their activities. After all, the Conservative party has had little to say about science – compared to other fields of policy - in  the recent past. And who knows what effect a big intake of new right-wing Tory MPs might have?

Tonight, speaking at a debate staged by the Cambridge Network, Adam Afriyie, the shadow science and innovation minister, made a big effort to reassure the country’s scientists.

Adam Afriyie

Adam Afriyie

He promised, above all, continuity: “We mustn’t fight political battles over science. Science should be the least ideological area in government. It’s difficult enough to raise the level of public debate about science, without unseemly squabbles among politicians,” he said.-

Afriyie welcomed Labour’s establishment of the Technology Strategy Board and added: “Stability is what’s needed right now. So let me offer reassurance. I am not planning a major reworking of either the dual funding system or the apparatus of science policy.”

He was only partially reassuring on funding: “If fortunate enough to serve as science minister, I’m going to fight tooth and nail for science. But it’s reckless to make undeliverable promises. Spending constraint will apply for any incoming party.”

As Afriyie noted, “Gordon Brown has made a-song-and-a-dance over the ring-fenced science budget.” He said a Conservative government would respect the ring fence, while repeating that “I cannot promise spending increases with an economy on its knees.”

Afriye also supported the independence of scientific advice to government, in the wake of Professor Nutt’s dismissal as head of the advisory council on drug misuse: “A number of scientists have signed a Statement of Principles setting out how they think independent scientific advice should operate. I believe those principles offer a strong basis for a new framework.”

“Science has a great future with Conservatives,” he concluded.

I hope he is right, because it would be sad if scientific opinion in Britain became associated with the Labour party, in the way that American scientists have become associated with the Democrats.

Clive Cookson

Lord Drayson, the science minister, has had a frantic time since returning to London on Tuesday from a motor racing trip to Japan. He has had to placate an army of angry scientists protesting against the threat to the independence and academic freedom of expert advisers, following the sacking of Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a week ago.

Late this afternoon Drayson – one of nature’s optimists – told me he saw a positive way forward. “There’s a real opportunity for good to come out of this row,” he said.

The basis for hope, he said, is the “Statement of Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice”, published by 27 of Britain’s most senior scientists earlier today.

The statement makes three points. Firstly, advising government should not reduce a scientist’s academic freedom to communicate publicly. Secondly, independent committees must be protected from political interference in their work. And lastly, committees’ reports should be published – and when the advice is rejected for reasons that go beyond the scientific evidence, the reasons should be described explicitly and publicly.

Lord Drayson

Lord Drayson

Drayson called the one-page statement “a helpful starting point”. Between now and Christmas he would be working with John Beddington, government chief scientist, and the scientists who drafted the statement to produce new guidelines for independent advice. These might include additional material from the government’s existing code of practice.

Although much of the statement reflects existing practice, there is one point that would require a change in Whitehall machinery. At present advisory committees have to work through their parent department’s press office when they release a report or want to contact the media – which might introduce political factors into their presentation.

The statement, reflecting a recent recommendation by the House of Commons science committee, says advisory groups should use an independent press office. Drayson agreed: “I think it would be a good idea if advisory committees had access to a body like the Science Media Centre.”

Clive Cookson

Alan Johnson, the UK home secretary, must have hoped that his sacking of David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs would be a nice quick kill – sending a message that he was as tough on cannabis as his Tory shadow Chris Grayling.

Johnson failed to appreciate the extent of the anger the dismissal would arouse among Britain’s scientists. If he had had the courtesy – and prudence – to consult Lord Drayson (science minister) and John Beddington (government chief scientist) in advance, he would surely have proceeded differently.

The treatment of Nutt goes against everything Drayson and Beddington are trying to achieve in their laudable attempt to introduce independent scientific advice throughout government.

But some good may yet come out of the mess, if it forces government and scientists to come up with an improved system for providing expert advice.

The excellent Commons Science and Technology Committee made two suggestions in a recent report, which would improve the presentation of scientific advice. One is to give advisory groups access to an independent press office that would present their findings – rather than the parent department. The other idea is to require the chief scientist in each department to report on every instance where official expert advice was not followed.

Clive Cookson

University College London has awarded its first Venture Research Prize, in an initiative to promote radical new ideas free of the constraints of the conventional peer review process.

The winner, biochemist Nick Lane, was chosen by UCL provost Malcolm Grant, from 30 proposals in a process that had no deadlines or peer review and few rules.

Lane will receive £150,000 to free himself from all other duties for three years, to investigate the origins of  complex, multicellular “eukaryotic” life on Earth.

His proposal is broad in its sweep but elegantly written – as befits someone who is a popular science writer as well as an academic. (His latest book, Life Ascending: the 10 Great Inventions of Evolution, has just come out.)

At the project’s heart is chemiosmosis, the process by which cells generate energy. This is driven by mitochondria, tiny organelles that retain their own genes separately from the main genome in the cellular nucleus.

Lane says eukaryotic life (all plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have nuclei) arose just once on Earth, from the symbiotic union of bacteria to form a single cell.

Venture Research looks for projects that are open-ended, without obvious, immediate applications. Lane says his work could have repercussions in any field where interactions between cellular nucleus and mitochondria might play a driving role, from research into ageing to cloning.

Congratulations to him, Malcolm Grant and above all Don Braben, the long-term proponent of Venture Research who pioneered the award. The world of science and technology needs more like it.

Clive Cookson

An interesting memo on “science and technology priorities for the Fiscal Year 2011 budget” has gone out from the White House to all federal departments and agencies.

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Holdren, head of science and technology policy, tell agencies to redirect spending from low priority areas to the administration’s “four practical challenges” – economic recovery, energy and climate change, healthcare and national security.

They should also focus on programmes that improve research productivity, strengthen education, build national infrastructure and enhance US space capabilities.

A fascinating passage of the memo urges agencies “to take advantage of today’s open innovation model – in which the whole chain from research to application does not have to take place within a single lab, agency or firm – and become highly open to ideas from many players, at all stages.”

That would mean transforming the closed mindset of many government departments and labs. Orszag and Holdren say they should “empower their scientists to have ongoing contact with people who know what’s involved in making and using things…”

“Open innovation” is a fashionable concept in science and technology policy circles. It would be excellent if the Obama administration could really make it happen within the US government.

Clive Cookson

Some good news at last from the House of Commons. MPs agreed today to establish a Science and Technology Committee, following a short, sharp lobbying campaign by Britain’s research organisations.

The move follows the Prime Minister’s decision three weeks ago to fold the old Department of Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) – which covered science and higher education – into Peter Mandelson’s huge Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) department.

That reorganisation made redundant the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee, which had scrutinised DIUS. But Phil Willis, its chairman, successfully argued to the Commons authorities that science would be lost within the BIS monster, if they did not give it a separate committee.

So the old IUSS Committee will morph seamlessly into a new Science and Technology Committee on October 1. That basically restores the position we had before the previous government reorganisation two years ago.

Congratulations to Mr Willis for fighting his ground and to everyone who supported him. As he says, “I cannot stress enough how vital the role of this Committee will be in ensuring that the Government’s science policy is held to account and that adequate attention is given to such a crucial policy area.”

(And apologies to readers elsewhere in the world for whom all this may seem terribly parochial. It does matter for British science policy!)

Clive Cookson

I normally groan when I hear about the establishment of yet another campaign group but Straight Statistics, launched last week, is a welcome exception.

Public confidence in official statistics is so low – and the presentation of statistics by companies, academics and the media frequently so poor – that we really need a body to protect the integrity of statistical information. Straight Statistics promises to play that role, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

My personal knowledge of some of the journalists and statisticians involved – particularly the director Nigel Hawkes, a former science editor and health editor of The Times – gives me confidence that Straight Statistics will succeed in its aim of restoring confidence by exposing bad and promoting good statistics. (I should add that Simon Briscoe, statistics editor of the Financial Times, is on the organisation’s board.)

The Straight Statistics website already contains good analysis of statistical deficiencies, for example of the Research Assessment Exercise (which determines university funding) and of the Home Office presentation of the national DNA database.

I suspect more of a challenge will be to find excellent statistical presentations, which others can follow. Sadly, it is easier to spot the failures than examples of really good practice.

Straight Statistics can play a public, campaigning role that is beyond the remit of the government’s Statistics Authority and the professional Royal Statistical Society.

As David Lipsey, the chairman of Straight Statistics, puts it, “the epidemic of statistical abuse is ultimately a threat to the integrity of our democracy. It has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.