UK to lead 'ground-breaking' development of science technology, Boris Johnson pledges in interview with ITV News

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Has the pandemic changed the prime minister's attitude to science?

After 16 months being “guided by the science”, I’m watching the prime minister being guided by a scientist.

In lab coat and gloves he’s being shown how to delicately pipette samples of Covid-19 vaccine into a test tube.

Mr Johnson doesn’t look all that comfortable with the technology.

But he’s come to the MHRA’s National Institute for Biological Standards and Control to launch what he says is a new, closer, relationship between government, science and business. 

A National Science and Technology Council will sit at the heart of government to improve the Britain’s impact in science and engineering. I start by asking him if the pandemic changed his attitude to science. 

He tells me: "This is what they call a big teachable moment for, for us, for the world, for Britain."

Praising the vaccine development, he said: "I think people can see that science is a massively positive thing."

Britain has always punched above its weight when it comes to the quality of its scientific institutions and scientific achievements. But historically the UK has done poorly at capitalising on them — given that we spend less than the EU and OECD average on R&D.  

Boris Johnson says planned investment in science will change all that. The Conservatives have committed to increase science spending to £22bn by 2025. But will they have the money? 

While this government may have relied on British science more than any other in recent history, it’s not the first to want to capitalise on its strengths.

Harold Wilson created the first Government Chief Scientist.

John Major created the Office of Science of Technology to sit within the Cabinet Office (similar to the reorganisation Boris Johnson is announcing today).

The Blair government launched a 10-year investment plan for science.

Theresa May’s government launched an Industrial Strategy only for it to be scrapped by this one.

I asked the PM whether the problem didn’t lie with scientific advice, but with scientific understanding among politicians.

Of the 25 ministers attending Cabinet, only two have scientific training - Alok Sharma has a degree in applied physics, Therese Coffey a PhD in Chemistry.

Mr Johnson, who said he had wanted be a scientist, criticised the education system in the UK for being "very binary" in separating science from humanities.

He said the country needed "enthusiasm for science and the recognition that uplifting and exciting and can lead immeasurably to the prosperity of the of the country, but also to the sum of human happiness".

The current Chief Scientist Patrick Vallance, has been picked to chair the new Science and Technology Council.

I asked the PM whether he would listen to the advice he, and other scientists give. Despite the Government’s repeated insistence they are “guided by the science” there are many instances during the pandemic when they have chosen to ignore it, or not act on it fast enough.

He said he venerated scientists, adding "we listen to their advice, but one of the great things about scientists is that they have, there is a wide spectrum of views".

"You have to go with the advice that you get and you have to judge where you think that the balance of opinion lies, that's what the government is trying to do."

He added he wanted to use the new council as a "forum" for the government to listen to scientists "to understand where they think things are going and then to communicate to business, to the private sector, and to the scientific world where we think the priorities might be and where we think their investment should be going".

But the PM wouldn’t be drawn on whether he regretted failing to listen to, or act upon the scientific advice he’d been given.

He told me "I think there'll be plenty time to look at all that but we've followed the scientific advice throughout", adding it would be a topic of an inquiry at a later date.

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