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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 05:38 GMT
PM's 'light of science' vision
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Tony Blair
Tony Blair says he has always stood by UK scientists
In 1963, a previous Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, called for a new Britain to be "forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution".

Nearly half a century on, Tony Blair is to call for more of the same. He told me that now, more than ever, our economic future is through "the brilliant light of science".

The prime minister is a late convert to science.

By his own admission, he wasn't good at science subjects in school. But now he's grown to love it.

The country's future, he says, lies "through science and technology helping us - not just to gain more benefits in terms of material possessions and consumer goods which obviously are very important to people; but also things like the environment.

"We won't solve climate change without the best scientific minds.

"We're not going to be able to treat people for diseases unless we have the best scientific minds."

Unfinished business

This is a prime minister with a mission.

I want to enthuse our young people particularly with the prospect of working in science
Tony Blair

He seems to have an urgency about him to get through unfinished business before his term of office comes to an end. Before he goes, he wants to sell science to the nation, particularly to the young.

"I want to enthuse our young people particularly with the prospect of working in science.

"It's not just about being a boffin in a laboratory - it's actually about practical application and transforming lives, tackling the world's problems and doing so in a very practical way."

The prime minister says that, during his term of office, research spending has more than doubled in real terms.

But not all is rosy.

Specialist colleges

Mr Blair has also presided over a time where the numbers of young people studying physics and chemistry have dwindled by a fifth. And a quarter of schools have no qualified physics teachers.

We've got to invest in science far more as a country
Tony Blair
This is a deficiency he acknowledges but says he's trying to put it right.

"We've got to invest in science far more as a country.

"The government is tripling investment in science - to recruit better science teachers - which is why we're offering all sorts of incentives for that to happen.

"We've got specialist science and technology colleges which we are creating."

However, investment is well short of the target set by the European Union's aim of being the "most competitive, dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

That's a statement from the EU's Lisbon Strategy which aims to match the US's research funding of about 3% of GDP by 2010.

Currently, Britain's is just over 1% but it is set to increase to 2.5% by 2015. Other EU member nations are moving even more slowly.

Booming base

The prime minister believes that the new budget achieved under the UK's presidency has begun to set that right.

"It's set in train a process that moves away from subsidy and toward investment. It's only just been put in place but I think gradually European research will begin to see some of those benefits," he says.

We should not get into the position of being anti-science as a country because how science is applied and how it's used is down to human beings to make decisions about
Tony Blair
The man who helped re-brand the Labour party believes that it's partly an image problem. It's a problem, he says, that's partly caused by the "antis" - the anti-GM groups, anti-vivisectionists and the anti-nuclear lobby that create a negative image of science.

"We should not get into the position of being anti-science as a country because how science is applied and how it's used is down to human beings to make decisions about.

"But for us as a country, where the future is as a knowledge economy, science will, in my judgement, today and for future generations, be as important as economic stability was when we were handling the problems in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s."

But that's what prime ministers have been saying for decades. Most researchers are delighted at what the government has done for them.

However, with huge research investment by India and China, senior researchers say that now is not the time to rest on laurels.

Exhortation and evangelism by the prime minister is welcomed - but on its own it, they say, it won't be enough.




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