LONDON — BRITISH science is facing its most radical shake-up since the 1960s.
The government's aim is to create a competitive framework for research and development (R&D). There are strong indications the private sector will be asked to assume a larger burden of scientific work.
After his Conservative government was reelected last April, Prime Minister John Major set up the Office of Science and Technology (OST) and asked senior Cabinet minister William Waldegrave to prepare a science policy White Paper, which is due to be published soon. Mr. Waldegrave is mulling over 520 submissions, which an official called "a wall-to-wall cross section of the latest thinking."
One controversial idea of the government-appointed Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACOST) calls for replacing five research councils that distribute some 1,000 British pounds million a year in grants and contracts with two agencies: One would support "curiosity driven" research; the other, "mission oriented" research. Organizations would compete for state funds in what ACOST calls an "open market." Dai Rees, Medical Research Council secretary, says ACOST submissions are "appalling" because th ey require much privatization and damage research continuity.
Under government pressure, the spirit of competition has already begun invading British universities. New financing policies already require the University Funding Council to grade research institutions. Prof. Graeme Davies, Funding Council chairman, said the system shows signs of raising standards. But it has been attacked by academics. Prof. Peter Scott of Leeds University says research could fall victim to consultants who "reward low-risk results" not "real excellence".
At the root of Mr Major's determination to encourage a radical rethink about science is his belief that Britain is falling behind in world research.
Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit studied more than 3,000 world journals and concluded that the number of papers published by British scientists declined until 1990.
Britain has also slipped in science spending. In gross spending as a proportion of GDP, it held third place in 1981; OST says it now ranks seventh. Britain also ranks seventh in R&D business spending, and 11th in spending on government science establishments.
A measure of the government's problem finding research money came last year when it halted work on fast nuclear reactors and withdrew from the European Fast Reactor (EFR) program, for which its annual contribution had been 13 British pounds million. Britain has spents4,000 British pound million on this research since the 1950s; its reactor at Dounreay in Scotland has been in the forefront of world research. The field is now open to Germany and France; most of the 300 British EFR research workers will hav e to move overseas.
OST indications suggest the White Paper will have a "Thatcherite" tinge, stressing a free market in research and encouraging the private sector to take up research enterprises, including some funded by the Ministry of Defense.
But the magazine New Scientist reflected views of many when it commented: "Any changes Mr. Waldegrave makes should take place gradually, and free-market dogma ought to be abandoned if it fails to provide environments in which talent can flourish."