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Hands off our boffins!

Drayson moves to use the science budget as a subsidy

Updated The UK's main sci/tech research funding body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has sent out clear signals that Blighty's science budget is being refocused in large part as an industrial subsidy.

Government biznovation minister Lord Drayson appears to be behind the moves.

Signs of a shift in emphasis have been emerging for some time. Lord Drayson holds a ministerial portfolio at the new government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) - which subsumed the shortlived Dept. of Innovation, Universities and Skills last year. There were those who were a bit disappointed that DIUS didn't feature the word "science" in its title when formed in 2007 - but at least it had the word "universities". This has now disappeared.

Earlier this year, Drayson set out his stall, saying:

Other nations are making choices about which areas to focus on in order to drive future growth... Shouldn’t we do the same to boost the economic impact of our science base?

Has the time come for the UK – as part of a clear economic strategy – to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation...?

We have made a start. My question is whether we need to go further and – while maintaining our overall investment in science – shift a greater balance of our investment...

Medical research has long been a strength of the UK... We have a strong industrial base in life sciences – Number 2 to the United States with both big pharma and biotech resident here.

The noble Lord's large personal fortune was made in pharma and biotech, though not actually by means of any successful research or innovation. There have since been questions about the vaccines produced by his firm Powderject, and it has been noted that the world is still waiting - without any great anticipation - for the eponymous injection device.

In theory the STFC, in charge of handing out government cash in research grants and funding for "big science" - telescopes, atom smashers etc. - is free of government influence. But STFC spokespersons admitted to the Reg this week that "obviously we are guided by DBIS".

Further ominous hints are revealed by the STFC's "prioritisation" exercise, begun in May and still under way. No new grant money will be committed beyond 2010 until "prioritisation" is complete, the STFC has announced this week.

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