Lord Mandelson wrote a letter to the Financial Times last Friday admitting that he “once questioned the use of public spending on science and wondered whether we should target more on applied rather than fundamental science”.

This is a natural question for any politician thinking seriously about the science budget. If public funding is meant to bring social and economic benefit, then should funding for researchers realising those benefits become a priority?

Yes, says Mandelson.  But he recognises that those researchers are not always easy to identify; they are not always working on projects with a predictable technological output. When he was in government he “was not comfortable in downgrading ‘curiosity’ research for the simple reason that, by definition, we could not tell in which beneficial direction it might take us”.

His experience also left him “unconvinced that government machinery would be efficient in its targeting at the level of academic research”. Echoing comments made by the Royal Society’s President to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee last week (14:24:00 onwards), Mandelson argues that more effort should be put into concentrating equipment and expertise, and into mechanisms for commercialising technology close to market.

This argument is part of a long, historical discussion about whether research priorities should be set by Whitehall that goes back to Haldane’s 1918 report, which recommended that they should not. (Although this conclusion should be understood with some caveats. In particular, the 1918 report talks about funding for research council-like bodies, not all public money spent on science.) In the face of the first cuts to the UK’s science budget in a decade, ideas about priority–setting have sparked renewed debate in the past few weeks.

Professor Adrian Smith FRS, Director General for Science and Research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills asked the national academies and other expert organisations to set out the likely impacts of any cuts to the science budget. The Royal Society’s submission argued that cuts of 20% or more would mean “game over” for the UK’s scientific and economic leadership.

Mandelson’s remarks also hold a warning to a government cutting spending on science: if you want to minimise the impact of cuts, funding should be allocated to excellent research, irrespective of discipline.

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