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Science needs a break from Haldane, says Willetts

Universities and science minister David Willetts would like to find a way to exempt some science spending from the Haldane principle, he told a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Manchester on 4 October.

The minister made the comments in response to a question about what the government is doing to address the challenges posed by the rise of China as a scientific competitor. He said he was keen to see UK scientists working with China but that his efforts to support this had been frustrated by the Haldane principle, which prevents ministers from making detailed decisions about which areas of research to fund.

He spoke of meeting officials on a trip to China who were interested in setting up a joint project on ocean acidification.

“When the Chinese science ministry says ‘Right Mr Willetts, let’s put money into a science project together’, what am I supposed to do? I have no power to do it,” he said. “All I can do is say ‘Yes, that’s a good idea’ and then go back to the research councils.”

Asked whether he would like a “discretionary fund” for such projects, Willetts said he would be interested in finding a way of doing so that nevertheless protected peer review.

“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 said.

Willetts was speaking at an event hosted by the Royal Society and the 1994 Group.