Published online 27 January 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.62

News

Science minister wants focus on fewer disciplines

Plan would concentrate UK funds on research of benefit to the economy.

Lord Drayson wants to shift research money to areas that will boost the UK economy.

Funds for research should be redirected to fields such as the life and earth sciences where the United Kingdom could lead the world, says the UK science minister.

Paul Drayson made the proposal to a House of Commons committee on 26 January. The general idea, he says, would be to focus the nation's scientific enterprise on research areas that would lead to commercialization and industrial growth. Focusing on life sciences, for example, could put the country at the forefront of an industry poised for "huge global growth and opportunity".

"I sincerely believe we could be the world's best in life sciences if we really put our minds to it," Drayson told members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee. "I'm calling for a serious debate about the areas of focus for this country in the future. If we are smart…we can grow this country very effectively."

Drayson declined to say where the money for investment should come from, but he suggests that peer-review might be the best way to choose the most promising fields: "Peer review is the best system that we've come up with so far," he says.

Not everyone is convinced. "There is already a feeling that the United Kingdom is becoming too directed," says Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK. "If this proposal means squeezing more blue-skies research, I think the community will have real concerns about it."

Peering ahead?

Peer review might be good for choosing winners within a discipline, but it struggles to choose between two disparate fields, says Colin Blakemore, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford and former chief of the British Medical Research Council. "It is very, very difficult to find people who are utterly dispassionate and really well-informed about a wide area of science," he says. "I just don't think it would work."

Other researchers have expressed concern over the price the country would pay by focusing on specific fields. "I'm not a huge fan of trying to pick winners," says Ken Peach, director of the John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science. Peach says that a focus on one area could provide some incremental gains, but a diverse basic research programme is more likely to ensure 'quantum leaps' in technology. "Electric light bulbs do not come from a programme of focused research and development into the candle," he says.

However, Liberal Democrat member of parliament Phil Willis, who heads the IUSS committee, called the proposal "welcome". "I think it shows a degree of realism," he says. He thinks that the proposal follows broader government thinking about weathering the current economic downturn by propping up the nation's strongest industries.

Drayson acknowledges that the choices facing the nation are "very difficult", but he says that he thinks it may be worth the risk. "If you get it right, then the upside is a pretty dramatic acceleration of economic growth," he says. 

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