Research debate call sparks fears
Lord Drayson has been the science minister since October 2008
The UK science minister has called for a debate on whether a bigger chunk of the research budget should be spent in areas that would benefit the economy.
Lord Drayson said the debate was important in the context of the global economic downturn.
But the remarks, made at the Foundation for Science and Technology in London, have concerned some scientists.
They fear basic research could be cut back in favour of areas that show commercial promise.
"Given that the world has changed dramatically over the last six months...we have to ask ourselves whether the way in which we're setting our science and innovation strategy is doing as much as it can do in these different circumstances," Lord Drayson told an audience of leaders in the science community.
However, he said that the government would continue its support for basic research but asked the audience whether the time had come to make choices about the balance of investment in science that are compatible with industrial and economic priorities.
"I don't accept that identifying those areas which are best aligned with our economic strategy necessarily means you have to focus on more applied research," he said.
"By continuing to invest long-term in pure research you can get the unexpected breakthroughs.
"However, those breakthroughs would want to see the UK in a strong position to exploit them".
Lord Drayson's comments received the support of the head of the Medical Research Council (MRC), Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.
"If science is successful then it's very important that during these difficult times we maintain our investment in high quality and excellence of science in the UK," Sir Leszek said.
"What has to be asked is the question of what areas of science are going to be best placed to help the economy in the future and that is a discussion that has to take place".
The president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, welcomed the debate. But he said it was essential that universities should be able to continue to carry out basic research based on academic excellence.
"I think it's important that funds for science should in large measure be apportioned according to scientific criteria and it's in all our interests to ensure that excellent people are encouraged into science and are encouraged to remain working in the UK," he said.
"That won't happen unless there is funding distributed on perceived international excellence.
"Over and above that, there may of course be special programmes on the UK level or on the European level which are directed toward particular national or international goals."
Nick Dusic, of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (Case), said that Lord Drayson's proposal could undermine the government's hard work in building up the UK's research base over the last ten years.
"There has been a lot of effort over the last few years to increase the impact of the research base, including setting grand challenges and creating new institutions to focus on translational research," he said.
"More direction from the government would cause alarm across the research community.
"Past initiatives have not been fully funded so they have eaten away at the amount of funding set aside for researcher-led work."