17 MARCH 2007, Page 46

Faint praise

‘Hasn’t done half as much damage ...’ is faint praise for a man hailed by his own propagandists as the greatest chancellor in modern times. But faint praise is what Brown naturally attracts. At an Editorial Intelligence seminar last week on the question of whether Britain has lost its innovative edge, I was taken aback by negative reactions to some mildly approving remarks I made about Brown’s commitment to government spending on science — which according to the DTI has more than doubled in real terms since 1997, and according to Sir Richard Sykes, who’s in a position to know as the rector of Imperial College London, has helped to put us ‘streets ahead of the rest of Europe’ in fields such as bioscience. Given the absence in this country of US-style endowments and venture capital networks to back early-stage development of exciting ideas, this is an area in which state funding has a vital role. I could carp about red tape in the grant system for university research and the R&D tax credit system for smaller companies, but the carping would not be echoed by most scientists and inventors. So credit where credit’s due, but my audience looked surprised and sceptical.