Gordon Brown's new job

Dear Gordon, 

Congratulations on the new job. With weeks to prepare for your move to number 10, there’s a real mood of expectation about your plans for the country. You’re probably going to be more radical than Tony - after all, you’re not likely to win another term simply by ploughing on with business as usual. So while you’re in the mood for change, Chemistry World would like to offer you some suggestions. 

You’ve always been generous with science funding. Lord Sainsbury’s review of science spending, due out in July, is expected to show how that investment has led to greater national prosperity, as innovation is translated into business. Sainsbury may well recommend further money for UK science to continue this virtuous cycle. If he does, take his advice - it’s rare to have had anyone in government who is so in touch with the scientific community’s needs.

Keeping money flowing into world class academic research is vital. But so too is support for those ’business-facing’ universities that boost knowledge transfer to small and medium enterprises - if you’d like to see some success stories, take a look at our feature in this month’s magazine on spin outs.

Given science’s impact on prosperity, why not make a separate cabinet position for a Minister for Science - it would certainly be a bold move to back up your rhetoric. At the moment, the Department for Trade and Industry looks after science and energy policy, but creating a Department for Science and Technology would bring our government in line with most other developed nations, help us to punch our weight in Europe, and perhaps even secure a ringfence around funds that have already been budgeted by the research councils. And since energy and environment are so inextricably linked, it may be sensible to group them under a single departmental umbrella. It might help to avoid the crippling short-term thinking that has dogged both areas in the past. 

Energy policy is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face this year. As I write, the government’s energy white paper - due for release on 23 May - is expected to endorse nuclear new build, and possibly a major tidal power project. Don’t forget that chemistry can play a major role in balancing the energy equation. Solar cell efficiency is improving all the time, while second generation biofuels, based on agricultural waste rather than food, are becoming more competitive. Carbon sequestration could help to keep fossil fuels in the mix, and the government should put Britain at the forefront of this technology by supporting a world-class flagship project in this area, without skimping on the investment needed to get it off the ground. 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Labour’s decade in power has been education (see ’Blair’s legacy’). Secondary school labs are in disarray, while teachers are tied up by bureaucratic targets that cut into their teaching time. Assessment is important, but surely that can be done without forcing every single child through an exam mincing machine every year? Efforts to recruit more science teachers are slowly bearing fruit, but more incentives are needed to attract science graduates to the profession, and then keep them there. Meanwhile, universities are still not allocated sufficient funds to teach their chemistry undergraduates the practical skills they need to contribute to Britain’s hi-tech economy.

Still, hope the move next door goes well. 

Yours sincerely, Mark Peplow, editor