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August 20, 2010

How to read Vince Cable's big speech on science at QMUL

Invites are going out now to what is being billed as Vince Cable's first major speech on science. It's at 9am on 8 September at Queen Mary's BioEnterprises Innovation Centre in East London. As usual, on the day, I will be doing an analysis of the speech (on an updated version of this page). But in advance, I thought it would be useful to take stock of where we are and consider Cable's options.

This speech really is a big deal. I understand that in recent meetings with BIS, the research councils have been told not to prepare submissions for a further round of discussion after George Osborne announces the resuls of the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October. In other words, all the important decisions about spending are going to be taken between now and 20 October. So the speech comes at an absolutely crucial time.

What's more, the decisions to be taken are big, and not just in cash terms. For example, I understad BIS itself remains unclear as to the level of specification the Treasury will provide on 20 October. Will the Treasury even split out a separate budget for Adrian Smith as Director General for Science and Research? If it doesn't, then the research councils' budgets will remain vulnerable to a raid every time a car manufacturer runs into trouble.

And the omens are not looking good. I'm told that mild optimism at BIS has evaporated in the past month and that there is still no progress on the central campaign for a renewed government commitment to long-term support for the science base (whatever the short-term pain).

I think the central question is still what role spending by government on research and technology plays in  the government's economic thinking. Everything follows from that. A year ago, both Cable and George Osborne were talking about a sectoral rebalancing of the economy with precedence being given to things like advanced manufacturing. Cable still is, but Osborne is not. Now, with the spending decisions looming, it's make your mind up time.

There are two fundamental options. Either the coalition believes the state has an important role in securing Britain's hi-tech future, in which case it should have no difficulty in committing to long-term support for science. Or it doesn't, in which case the only thing it can say is, as Margaret Thatcher did, that the government's job is to cut taxes so that firms can make up their own minds about where to spend their money.

As yet, Osborne has not adopted either position. The centrepiece of his Budget statement was the cut in Corporation Tax. But he framed this in terms of competition between Britain and other countires and the idea of Britain being open for business. He didn't argue that it would do anything to help with hi-tech investment or rebalancing the economy.

So here's one way Cable could open his speech:

This has been billed as my first big speech on science, and it is. So let me be clear about how important science is to this government.

"We have to rebalance this economy to make it less wholly dependent on the success of financial services. We need active government support for manufacturing, low carbon energy, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, the creative industries and the other sectors Britain should be excelling in."

Not my words - George Osborne's, in a speech last October. And I'm repeating them today because I want everyone to be clear about the central place that hi-tech economic sectors have in the thinking of this government. And hence, the importance we attach to the science and engineering base that underpins those sectors.

This would be a Cable fighting for the sectoral rebalancing he has been supporting recently. More, by repeating Osborne's support for the idea, he would be putting pressure on the Chancellor to fulfil the promises he made in Ocober. Osborne wouldn't like it, but that's the point. And if Cable goes this far, then he can't really avoid talking about long-term financial commitments and all the other pressing issues.

So that's what I'll be looking for in Cable's speech. How about you? Please use the comments section below to suggest things you'd like Cable to say.

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Comments

Is there a link to the actual speech anywhere? Would like to read what Cable proposed...

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