Science policy

Clive Cookson

In a move overshadowed by the weekend’s political dramas, science was yet again shuffled between UK government departments as a result of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet changes.

Over the years responsibility for science has resided in several different departments, including Education and Science (DES), Trade and Industry (DTI) and Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS).

On Friday the Prime Minister pulled the plug on DIUS, less than two years after its creation. He folded it into Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), forming a new super-ministry known as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. BIS will be like the old DTI but with the added responsibility for higher education.

Quite rightly, commentators in the academic and scientific communities have expressed concern about the quick demise of DIUS. While few felt that DIUS was doing a great job, the cost and disruption of yet another reorganisation, so soon after the last one, should not underestimated.

From the viewpoint of science, the most important thing is that the budget for basic research, which has risen strongly under Labour, should not be raided to pay for problems in other areas for which BIS is responsible – as happened when science was in the old DTI.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, put it well: “In the rush to unlock economic benefits, we must ensure that we don’t divert resources away from basic research… It is imperative that the science budget remains strong and ring-fenced.”

Another concern emerged today. It was announced that Lord Drayson, the science minister, who had worked full-time in DIUS, would now divide his time between BIS and the Ministry of Defence, where he will be responsible for research, development and procurement – a job he held a few years ago.

All in all this seems to amount to something of a demotion for science in the Whitehall hierarchy.  But who knows how long the new set-up will last…

Clive Cookson

I have just caught up with the recent announcement of recipients of the greatest honour in British science: Fellowship of the Royal Society. It is not quite the Nobel Prize but adding the letters FRS to one’s name can give a big boost to a scientific career. So some ambitious researchers lobby quietly but hard among friends and colleagues who are already Fellows, first to be nominated as a candidate for the Fellowship and then to pass successfully through the Society’s elaborate peer-reviewed selection process.

Given the serious under-representation of women in the senior ranks of science, the first thing I look for on the annual list of 44 new FRSs is the female names. This year there are five, including Wendy Hall, whose research focuses on the way people interact with the web and other large multimedia information systems, and Angela McLean, an epidemiologist who produced the first mathematical models of how vaccine-resistant pathogens evolve.

Five women out of 44 new Fellows does not sound great but in fact this 11 per cent female representation is high by the standards of recent FRS lists. Last year was more typical, with two new female FRSs out of 44.

Leafing through the 142 pages of the Society’s confidential book of FRS candidates I can see where the problem lies: too few women are proposed for the Fellowship. The candidates are overwhelmingly male. The new crop of candidates for 2009, who will be eligible for selection over the next seven years, contains nine women out of 138 names (6.5 per cent).

So come on, you FRSs, make more effort to propose female candidates. They are probably less pushy and self-promoting, on average, than men of equivalent scientific excellence. But I know there are many brilliant and accomplished women are out there in Britain’s labs, deserving nomination for an FRS.

Clive Cookson

The campaign for the European Parliamentary Elections on Thursday has been shockingly short of debate about substantive issues, at least in the UK. You will find little or no analysis in the UK media of a key EU function: supporting science, research and innovation.

Yet the main political parties do have policies on these issues, as the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering points out. CaSE asked the UK parties what the EU should be doing about science and innovation; the responses can be found on the campaign’s website.

Encouragingly, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats all want the EU to do more for research.  Although the Conservatives favour a cap on the overall EU budget, they support the transfer of funding to science and technology – and strongly support growth of the new European Research Council. The Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru, its Welsh counterpart, are even more enthusiastic.

The Green party focuses particularly on promoting a “revolution in skills to build the new green economy,” though it will not win many friends among mainstream scientists through its call for “an immediate halt to xenotransplantation, genetic manipulation and cloning of animals, and an immediate ban on the harmful use of animals (including but not only primates) in research, testing and education.”

Of course the UK Independence Party believes the EU has no part to play in research. “Such matters should be dealt with by our national parliament, which could fund research far more efficiently and effectively than the European Union,” UKIP says.

In a valiant attempt to engage scientists’ interest in the elections, Nick Dusic, CaSE director, says: “I hope that the information provided by the parties on their EU science and engineering policies informs your vote on 4th June.” That may be a vain hope but it is good to see someone trying to involve scientists in the European democratic process.

Clive Cookson

To the House of Lords for a science seminar. The upper house of our Parliament may be unelected – and therefore a target for democratic reform – but it certainly boasts a strong array of scientific talent.

Helene Hayman, who chairs the house in her capacity as Lord Speaker, is holding a series of seminars for peers and journalists, to highlight the chamber’s expertise in important policy areas. Economics came first, science is second and foreign policy will be next.

John Krebs, the zoologist and former head of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Food Standards Agency, started the seminar with a review of food science issues. Then Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, explained her fears that children who grow up immersed in “screen culture” (from computers, television, mobile phones, etc) will undergo psychological changes including shorter attention span, reduced empathy and excessive risk-taking. And Bob May, population ecologist and former president, talked about climate change.

After this trio of formal opening contributions, we heard from an array of distinguished scientific peers, who contribute regularly to Lords debates, scrutinise and amend legislation (such as last year’s Embryology Act) and write the excellent reports produced by the Lords Science and Technology Committee. (The committee’s next report, due out next month, will be about gene testing and genomic medicine.) All but one are life peers; the exception is John, Earl of Selbourne, one of 90 hereditary peers who still serve in the House.

I asked a slightly unfortunately worded question about how all this scientific expertise could be preserved if and when the House of Lords is reformed to make it “more democratic” by introducing directly elected peers. Baroness Hayman ticked me off: “It is important not to start from the premise that an institution can only be democratic through direct elections,” she said. Openness and accountability are equally important.

Jack Cunningham, who chaired two inquiries into reforming the House of Lords, made clear his opposition to a wholly elected upper chamber. “If they want some of the real strengths [of the Lords] to survive and develop, they can’t take that route,” he said. “People will have to choose whether they want a pale reflection of the lower chamber.”

I had favoured a wholly elected House of Lords, without really thinking through the issues. By the end of today’s seminar I agreed with Lord Cunningham – and most of his fellow peers – who feel that it would be a tragedy if all the house’s expertise in specialist fields such as science were sacrificed to what he called the “democratic imperative”.

I still think the Lords should be reformed but I now prefer a hybrid system, with about half the house elected on long mandates and half appointed from people who have exceptional expertise and experience to offer, rather like today’s life peers but less political.

Parliamentary Copyright

The Lord Speaker on her Woolsack (Parliamentary Copyright)

Clive Cookson

In Prague for the first European Future Technologies Conference. I’m chairing the opening session and a panel discussion about “multidisciplinary transformative research”. 

The conference and associated exhibition are the first to showcase the achievements of Europe’s 20-year-old Future and Emerging Technologies programme. They include mind-reading computers and friendly companion robots.

I must admit I hadn’t heard of FET (oh dear, another Euro-acronym to learn) but it looks as though it has achieved a reasonable return from its €100m a year budget, which is set to double over the next six years. I’ll write more about some of these achievements later in the week after I’ve been round the exhibition.

Henry Markram, who heads Switzerland’s Blue Brain project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, gave a powerful opening keynote address. If all researchers communicated as well as Henry, we’d have no trouble enthusing young people about science and technology.

Blue Brain is the world’s most advanced attempt to “reverse-engineer” the brain by simulating all its functions on supercomputers. Henry demonstrated an amazing simulation of neurons at work in a rat’s brain and told us a full simulation of the human brain would be possible within 10 years. Among many other things, this could help scientists to understand psychiatric conditions that remain medical mysteries.

Then came the dignitaries’ official opening ceremony. The pair advertised in the conference programme – the Czech prime minister and European information commissioner – were otherwise engaged, though Commissioner Viviane Reding did make a video presentation. So their stand-ins, Czech education minister Ondřej Liška and EC chef de cabinet Rudolf Strohmeier, cut the ribbons (literally, with scissors). Why a future-oriented conference needed such a traditional opening is rather a mystery; sadly my suggestion of a ribbon-cutting robot came too late.

Then my panellists made several interesting points about multidisciplinary research. One was that scientists become more interesting in working outside their original discipline as they grow older – age and status provide a security blanket for adventures that younger researchers feel they can’t risk.

Security fears can promote interdisciplinary thinking in a quite different way, observed Ivan Havel, director of the Centre for Theoretical Study at the Charles University’s Institute for Advanced Studies – and brother of former Czech president Václav Havel. During the Communist era, when dissident scientists from different disciplines were forced to meet in secret, their discussions were so fruitful that they have been maintained ever since.

Clive Cookson

The UK life sciences industry is involved in an unseemly spat with one of its regulators.

Three trade bodies have accused the Human Tissue Authority of introducing “unrealistically excessive” fee increases that “show complete disregard of economic environment and run counter to government support of the life sciences sector”.

The HTA licence fee for a company using human tissue for clinical applications rises today by 45 per cent to £11,000 for its main site and by 280 per cent to £3,800 for each satellite site. The new fees were only announced on Friday, following a consultation exercise.

In a joint statement the BioIndustry Association, Association of British Healthcare Industries and British In Vitro Diagnostics Association say: “Coming at a time when many companies are already suffering severe financial difficulties, this adds further and unexpected costs with extremely limited notice.”

According to the trade associations, the HTA charges much more than its counterparts in other European countries for regulating human tissues and cells intended for medical applications.

In response, Adrian McNeil, HTA chief executive, says: “We have done everything we can to keep licence fees to a minimum. These include applying the lightest possible touch when implementing complex legislation and introducingstreamlined systems and processes.” The whole fee structure will be reviewed this year.

But the underlying problem is that UK Treasury guidelines require the HTA to recover regulatory costs from licence fees, without cross-subsidy between different sectors.

The associations are unlikely to change matters merely by complaining. A concerted refusal by every member company to pay the increased fees might force the government to rethink its policy – but such ungentlemanly action is not on the agenda.

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.