Willetts's high-tech vision

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 4 January 2012 in Diary
Is the universities and science minister's plan STEAM power or hot air?

To make Britain the best place in the world to do science. This was the simple, if ambitious, government goal outlined by David Willetts in a speech today.

Speaking at Policy Exchange, the minister endorsed the words of Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK: "if the British economy has been a stagecoach stuck in the mud then our universities are one of the horses that can pull it out."

In an eight-point list of “steps to high-tech growth” outlined by Willetts today, the most notable announcement was his call for privately-funded “science only” research institutions. Private companies, existing universities and others might, on Willetts’s nascent plans, set up a place where postgraduates could study and academics could go about their research without pestering the state for funding.

But there’s no need to panic—or celebrate depending on your political persuasions—so far Willetts has merely invited “the interested organisations to discuss how best to carry this forward”. This discussion will be a heated one. For some interested parties the stakes are high. For instance, existing universities that find themselves with less government support than they once had won’t like the idea of wholly private institutions competing for private money.

Willetts announced other, less exciting but more concrete ways the government would pursue “high-tech growth”: a Catapult centre, focusing on reducing the time satellite technologies find an economic use, will be set up, as will two leadership councils in e-infrastructure and synthetic biology. But these hardly look like the foundations on which Britain will build a world-beating high-tech economy.

As one would expect from the unashamedly wonk-ish minister, Willetts had done his homework. Countless sentences in the speech began with “studies show...” and other quantitative prefixes. His arguments were neatly furnished by the words of leading economists, CEOs and scientists. But the most important part of the speech was also the most predictable: “there will be no additional Government funding.”

As long as this is the case, the universities and science minister cannot go much further than the statement of intent he made today. To assure the audience that he took the arts and humanities seriously, all he could do was modify the STEM acronym (science, technology, engineering and maths) to include the arts: STEAM. Or just hot air?


Tags: David Willetts

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