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May 18, 2010

Meet the press with David Willetts

David Willetts came face to face with London’s science press corps today at the Science Media Centre. Compared to his predecessor Paul Drayson, he comes across as less energetic and enthusiastic, more considered and cerebral. You can see where he got his nickname “Two Brains”.

Willetts seems interested in how the scientific method can be applied to policy across government. The scientific mindset, he said, was one of the most important shared ways of thinking that we have. Using scientific evidence, he said, was one of the best ways to reach out to the public across ideological, religious and cultural lines. I wonder if he’s tried telling that to David Nutt.

Of course, with the government’s first £6 billion in cuts to be announced next Monday, what we really wanted him to talk about was money. Will he fight to protect science funding from cuts? The short answer to that: no.

"The problem is that the state of the public finances is particularly vulnerable," he said. "Even in the boom years, too much of public spending was based on borrowing. The country is facing a very severe fiscal problem, so we can't exempt science from scrutiny. The boom is at an end, now we have to figure out how to manage through a very painful process."

It seems that science, despite its vital importance to the rebalancing of the economy, can expect no special favours.

As he has only been in the job a few days, Willetts had little to say about specific policies. He did say he understood the “crucial importance” of blue-skies research, and repeated his scepticism of the plan to measure the impact of research in the Research Excellence Framework, so that is likely to be heavily diluted, or dropped altogether. He wants to reduce the amount of time academics have to devote to things like the REF, which is commendable, but the last time someone tried that we ended up with a revolt over bibliometrics.

Saying that the last thing Whitehall needed was another reorganisation, Willetts hinted that the research councils would be left largely untouched in any quango cull, though the ones dealing with skills should watch out.

All in all, it seems we have an interesting science minister for interesting times.

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