David Willetts meets Cambridge University Science Society

4 Mar

Post written by Michelle Brook, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Last night David Willetts MP Minister for Universities and Science spoke at Cambridge University Science Society on the subject of “The Coalition’s Vision for Science and Technology”.  Being an alumnus of the university and a life long member of the society, I thought I’d take the opportunity to listen to him speak to an almost exclusively academic audience – a very different one to that I typically hear him addressing.

Opening with an admission that the audience knows more about science than him, some of what Willetts had to say was expected: Cambridge was congratulated on being world class, and he emphasised that the university is deeply respected world wide.  The world class nature of Cambridge (as well as a number of other English Universities) and the requirement to protect these academic institutes was stated as the reason increased tuition fees were being introduced.  Once again the claim was made that the science budget has been protected in cash terms and ring-fenced – as opposed to the more accurate statement that the science resource budget has been protected in cash terms and ring – fenced, but that capital funding has not.   The issue around immigration and visas was raised and Willetts stated that he is trying to negotiate with the Home Office on Tier 4 (or student) visas, and that he is optimistic that they will “reach a satisfactory outcome”.  He said that he wanted to ensure properly qualified students will be able to enter the UK to attend British Universities, but also emphasised that there are abuses of the Tier 4 visa system at present which must be addressed .

Despite much of the content not being new – there were a number of points I considered worthy of note.  Whilst emphasising the importance of evidence in policy, Willetts said that politicians often had to make judgements based upon incomplete evidence.  He also emphasised that whilst the scientific evidence provided by physical and natural scientists is very important, that these subjects don’t provide the complete picture – and other disciplines are also vital.

I found it  encouraging to hear Willetts explicitly aligning himself with the science community – stating that innovation was crucial, as was generation of the “economic impact that we need to convince the Treasury of the argument” for  future financial support of UK science.


Willetts provided an economic definition of a cluster: “a low risk environment for high risk activities”, stating that the Cambridge area certainly constituted such a cluster.  He added that whilst the government cannot create clusters, they can and should support them when they arise or have arisen, pointing out that clusters are infrastructure intensive – requiring, amongst other things good transport links.  Although the presently closed Oxford-Cambridge railway line was not mentioned, given that Willetts said that it could be argued that Oxford, Cambridge and London are part of a larger cluster, an argument can be seen for the importance of re-opening this railway line to complete the triangle in this larger cluster.


Willetts referred to some research on STEM graduates and careers that is expected today (4th March 2011) – apparently we were the first audience to hear of the conclusions.  Whilst businesses often complain there is a shortage of STEM graduates, the UK produces a significant number of STEM graduates – above the European average. However, less than half of these STEM graduates go on to STEM related employment.  The research is expected to show that half way through their final year, 25% of undergraduates have not completed any job applications, and that there are high levels of uncertainty amongst these students as to what to do with their STEM qualification.

Willetts stated that this made these STEM graduates susceptible to recruit ment from other professions, such as consultancy, and that this was exacerbated by a very modest recruitment effort from SMEs.  As such, large numbers of STEM graduates are lost from the scientific career pipeline. Whilst Willetts views it as desirable to be spreading scientific understanding into the wider populations, to his mind, this leaky STEM pipeline does cause problems for science.

Part of this “leaky pipeline” comes back to the oft stated incomplete careers advice, and I presume there will be encouragement from the government towards SME’s and universities to improve their attempts to retain science graduates as active researchers.


When I asked if he could give a ball park figure for how much the UKRC 2011- 2012 transitional funding would be (Annette Williams announced earlier this week that the UKRC had succeeded in wining some transitional funding from BIS), he said that “if he remembered correctly the figure was about £500,000”.  He went on to state that when this money ended he hoped to see a continuation and strengthening of women networks such as STEM ambassadors and STEMNET.

One thing that really struck me during the question and answer session was that many of the questions being asked were those that people working within science policy had already asked of Government – many of the answers to which are in the public domain.  There were many questions about immigration – such as the issues surrounding Tier 1 and Tier 2 visas, questions about the ACMD and why the government is trying to remove  requirements for specific science based knowledge from the ACMD  advisory panel.  These are all excellent questions – but they are questions that have been asked many times before – in a variety of forums, including but not limited to Select Committees evidence sessions.

This made me think that as a community, the science policy world isn’t as good as it could and should be at disseminating information into the scientific community and wider public – scientific academics and students at Cambridge are a cohort that could and should know more about these issues which directly affect them.  Whilst there appears to be increasing coverage of science policy issues in the media, somehow the information received by people working within policy isn’t being fed back effectively enough into the science community.  As a Learned Society who relies on the opinion and expertise held within its membership, this is an issue we are working to address.

A more informed audience might have been able to ask more subtle and searching questions of David Willetts, rather than asking questions that have previously been raised.

They may also feel more reassured  that some of the issues facing science, research and universities – such as immigration –  are being addressed and that the opportunity has been provided by Government for significant input from the scientific community (particularly through those working in science policy) on many of these issues.

Surely an increased confidence of the science community that the government isn’t trying to destroy British science can only be a good thing?


4 Responses to “David Willetts meets Cambridge University Science Society”

  1. Stephen Curry 04/03/2011 at 15:47 #

    Nice summary, Michelle.

    But light grey text on a white background – are you guys trying to hide this from someone? Very tiring on my ancient eyes.

  2. Beck Smith 04/03/2011 at 16:02 #

    Ah ha! Text should now be black – thanks for the comment Stephen.

  3. SmallCasserole 04/03/2011 at 19:42 #

    Nice summary – sometimes questions are asked to make a point rather than elicit and answer.

    • Michelle Brook 05/03/2011 at 17:21 #

      True – and is very useful for showing the depth of feeling around certain issues. However, I’m still fairly well integrated into the community here at Cambridge (I still live here, and live with a number of PhD students). Talking to my friends, and their friends and lab colleagues (including post-docs and PIs), it seems to me that too many people simply are not aware of the discussions going on around these policy issues.

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