From Siobhan Wagner’s July 23, 2010 article on The Engineer website,
Science minister David Willetts told MPs yesterday it is ‘most unlikely’ the UK’s 24 nanotechnology centres will still be in existence in 18 months time.
In the first public meeting of the House of Commons science and technology committee, Willetts said the UK has too many centres that are ‘sub-critical in size’ and resources are fractionalised by region.
‘We have been getting a strong message that especially when times are tight that people want fewer, stronger centres,’ he said.
Given the budget concerns in the UK, the move can’t be any surprise. From Richard Jones’ (Soft Machines), July 11, 2010 posting (made before this potential cut was announced),
We know that the budget of his [Willetts'] department – Business, Innovation and Skills – will be cut by somewhere between 25%-33%. [emphasis mine] Science accounts for about 15% of this budget, with Universities accounting for another 29% (not counting the cost of student loans and grants, which accounts for another 27%). So, there’s not going to be a lot of room to protect spending on science and on research in Universities.
What I found particularly interesting in this posting is Willetts’ reference to a philosopher in his speech made July 9, 2010 and Jones’ discussion of what this reference might mean as the UK government grapples with science research, budget cuts, and finding common ground within a coalition that shares the rights and responsibilities of ruling,
More broadly, as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together. Increasingly, we have to abide by John Rawls’s standard for public reason – justifying a particular position by arguments that people from different moral or political backgrounds can accept. And coalition, I believe, is good for government and for science, given the premium now attached to reason and evidence. [Jones' excerpt of Willetts' speech]
The American political philosopher John Rawls was very concerned about how, in a pluralistic society, one could agree on a common set of moral norms. He rejected the idea that you could construct morality on entirely scientific grounds, as consequentialist ethical systems like utilitarianism try to, instead looking for a principles based morality; but he recognised that this was problematic in a society where Catholics, Methodists, Atheists and Muslims all had their different sets of principles. Hence the idea of trying to find moral principles that everyone in society can agree on, even though the grounds on which they approve of these principles may differ from group to group. In a coalition uniting parties including people as different as Evan Harris and Philippa Stroud [I assume one is a conservative and the other a liberal democrat in the UK's coalition government] one can see why Willetts might want to call in Rawls for help.
Jones’ posting provides other insights into Willett’s perspective. (BTW, If you do check out the blog, be sure to read the comments.) As for what this perspective might mean relative to the proposed cut, I don’t know. Unfortunately, I have to wait for a future Jones’ posting where he will discuss,
The other significant aspect of Willetts’s speech was a wholesale rejection of the “linear model” of science and innovation, but this needs another post to discuss in detail.
In the meantime, Tim Harper, prinicipal of Cientifica (a nanotechnology consulting firm), and TNT blogger notes,
The lack of any reaction to Fridays announcement that many of the UKs nanotech centres would be unlikely to survive is because it is old news.
He goes on to speculate that the government is gradually preparing the public for the really big cuts due in October 2010. He also provides a brief history of the centres and some of the peculiar circumstances of their existence.