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Willetts wants pocket money to spend on China projects

David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, is in talks with research funders about establishing a discretionary fund to invest in joint projects with China.

A source close to the discussions says this is one of the top ideas that could feature in the UK government’s research and innovation strategy, which is expected in November.

At the Conservative party conference in Manchester this month, Willetts said he wanted to set up a fund that would allow him to agree to partnerships with China as and when they arise, rather than having to wait for the research councils to make a decision. Willetts spoke of his frustration at trying to explain to Chinese ministers that the Haldane principle prevents him from agreeing to projects on the spot.

“I don’t want to spend my second year as minister for science going around all the countries I met in my first year to explain why all the projects they put forward to me haven’t happened,” he told a fringe meeting on 4 October.

China’s top-down approach to research funding means they have difficulty understanding why the UK science minister isn’t allowed to make decisions about which projects to support, he said.

Research Fortnight has since learnt that Willetts has met with funders and learned societies including Research Councils UK, the Technology Strategy Board and the Royal Society, to come up with ideas for projects.

In a further hint to the plans, business secretary Vince Cable said in London on 12 October that the government’s soon-to-be-announced growth strategy would address “what challenges—and indeed opportunities for international collaboration—arise from the rise of the BRIC countries and others.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The science minister chaired a roundtable of innovation and research organisations last month to discuss the UK-China research relationship and we are now considering next steps.” She added: “The proposal for some form of new UK-China research fund is one of a variety of ideas currently under consideration. Discussions are at a very early stage and any decision would be dependent on identifying appropriate funding.”

BIS would not be drawn on how much money could be involved, but it is thought to be in the region of £50 million.