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Australian appointed as Chief Scientist in Britain discusses his role and gives reasons as to why he withdrew from the running to be head of CSIRO


ROBYN WILLIAMS: The Ministry of Science and Technology, led by Senator Peter Cook, has just released a report today finding that the CRCs - the Co-operative Research Centres - are a resounding success. Visits to a number of overseas countries have shown that none have anything to match the achievements of our own centres and maybe this will be one of the innovations that British Prime Minister, John Major, will look at when his new Chief Scientist, Bob May, takes up his job in three weeks.

Bob May, is an Australian at Oxford. He is the Royal Society Professor in the Department of Zoology there and what's more, he was also a possibility for our own head of CSIRO.

BOB MAY: I was head-hunted by those people and I did give it some serious thought.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: It's just that there is a rumour that you were in the short-list and then withdrew because John Major called upon you.

BOB MAY: Well, I thought fairly hard about it and, I think, on the whole the Chief Scientist's job is one that is closer to such areas of confidence of that kind as I have, and it wasn't an easy decision. The head of CSIRO is an extraordinarily interesting and challenging job and, I think, it was the thing that came closest to tempting me back to Australia. Also has the advantage - I probably shouldn't say this under any circumstances - but that does have the advantage that given the situation that figures(?) it in the moment, one has the feeling that it wouldn't be hard to make it better.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: In what way?

BOB MAY: Ah! I think, and I really shouldn't talk about it because I don't know all that much about it, but I have the feeling that over the years it has got encrusted, in recent years, with an excess of layers of bureaucracy and I think one could, with effect, have peeled some of that away, which is something that, since then - I gather independent inquiries have suggested - in a way that I think would have, on the whole, sharpened the organisation. And secondly, I have the feeling that there's been a lot of unnecessary aggravation that stems in part possibly from the fact that I was first asked, when I was approached about that organisation, I was offered the sort of dichotomous view as to the search .. whether the search should be for what was the older image of the head of CSIRO - namely, an outstandingly distinguished scientist - or whether it should be a good manager, which I thought was a really rather strange dichotomy to begin from because my view would be very, very strongly that what the place needed was a distinguished scientist who was a good manager. The point being that even if you had the Archangel Gabriel to manage it, if the person has no real standing in science, then they don't have the moral authority and, I mean after all, if the person has the vision you want, then presumably they've realised that in their own scientific life. Conversely, no matter how good a scientist, if the person can't translate that vision into action then that's not good for the organisation. And I have the feeling that I would have brought to that the strength that might have had a certain healing effect in some directions.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, indeed. But what does the Chief Scientist do in Britain?

BOB MAY: Good question. My job is twofold: first of all, I am head of that Office of Science and Technology and it's my responsibility to keep the goodwill and the new conversations between industrialists and scientists, to keep the momentum of that. At the same time, as Chief Scientist, my responsibility is more broadly reporting to the Prime Minister to advise the Cabinet across the whole sweep of science, not just that which is in the Office of Science and Technology, but also the expenditure in the Ministry of Defence, in various other departments - Health and so on, to look across the whole 6 billion of government research and development of which that in the Office of Science and Technology is only about a fifth.

It's a job where one doesn't have the power to say, 'Let it be so.' It's a job where success rests on effective persuasion of people, either in other departments or in the Prime Minister's office, that this is the thing to be doing.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, does that mean you're going to have to leave Oxford and your precious research?

BOB MAY: If this certainly is a full-time job - one minor modification - I have an agreement that I shall keep about half a day a week, about a tenth of my time, to remain engaged with my research group here in Oxford. Yes, I regard that as part of the job description. As we were saying earlier, when we were chatting about CSIRO, I believe that to do this kind of job effectively, one has to have street credibility and one has that much more if one is still actively engaged in research, as many of the previous Chief Scientists have been.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes. Bob, I've known you for many years and one thing I know about you is that you are no purveyor of bullshit. I just wonder how you can manage, given your outspokenness, to be Sir Humphrey at the same time?

BOB MAY: Yes. That's a very good question. It's a question that will not surprise you that came up in the interview for the job ad before it.

Several of my friends who tread the corridors of power put it a slightly different way. They said, 'You won't have the patience for this job.' And in the actual interview - I thought a rather good interview - but it began with people asking me what I thought were easy questions: Was I comfortable describing complicated issues in sound bites. And I said, 'No, no, you're not asking me the really hard questions, which is, do I have the patience and do I have the ability to behave as a good civil servant simply must, which is, on occasion represent in public what are the defined consensus views within government even though one personally disagrees with them.' I think that's a discipline one has to accept. It's a discipline at a much, much lower level I've accepted for the 11 years that at Princeton in a microcosm of this job - a vastly, vastly scaled-down version of this job - as the Vice-President for Research at Princeton my job was essentially to do, in that microcosm of an institution of a private university, what one now does in the UK more generally, that is to say, advise the administration on what one thought were the areas that needed strengthening, needed winding down, while at the same time representing to the research community in the university why it is they couldn't have all the things they wanted.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Have you met John Major yet?

BOB MAY: I have not met John Major yet in the context of this job, though I've met him before.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes. The timing's rather interesting, because just when he was putting himself on the line and retaining office, afterwards there was a reshuffle and some people, such as the Editor of the journal Nature, feel that as a result science missed out. In other words, instead of being a separate department as you described, it is now more or less like in Australia, as part of industry. Does that worry you?

BOB MAY: The Office of Science and Technology, as a result of the Cabinet reshuffle, was moved out of the Cabinet Office and made a part of the Department of Trade and Industry, where in budgetary terms it would now be something like a third of Trade and Industry. There are good things and bad things about that. I would argue, and many would argue with me, that the British science base really does remain very strong. It continues to produce extremely well flexibly-trained scientists and engineers. It continues to discover new things and there is no doubt, whatsoever, that on an uncertain and unforeseeable timescale, the British science base continues to create wealth. More to the point, however, is not all that wealth is captured as effectively as it might be in the United Kingdom. So this pious utterance of the moment - wealth creation - really means wealth creation for UK Limited and that's, in some areas, pharmaceuticals, chemistry. The UK does an outstanding job, not surprisingly, because those are industries which are tied very closely to the science base and which invest heavily in research and development. Other industries have a less happy record and thus one of the primary purposes of these sort of deliberate forward-look enterprises that are going on is to try and do a better job of getting industry together with the science base.

Feeding both ways, problems come out of application. The whole science of thermodynamics, the thing that's often held as a hallmark of the educated person knowing the second law of thermodynamics, that came after heat engines and the search for that understanding was driven by the technology, not the other way.

Be all that as it may, if that's your view of the major problem then it makes a lot of sense to put science and technology in with trade and industry. People are sensitive to the difficulties of putting a trans-departmental department like Science and Technology into DTI and it's budget will be ring-fenced. I am persuaded that there are a lot of opportunities here to be grasped and it's been done for the right reasons.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Indeed. And you're reporting to the Prime Minister, not necessarily John Major or Tony Blair?

BOB MAY: Absolutely. This is not an American-style system nor even - the debate goes on in Australia about the thoughts of the increasing politicisation of the higher levels of the Civil Service. Britain is firmly committed to an apolitical Civil Service.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: And you'll teach them a few Australian wisetricks?



Britain's new Chief Scientist, Australian, Bob May, an international star in his fields of chaos, AIDS, epidemiology and theoretical ecology.