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Sainsbury: Labor's lab lord

July 19, 2006 By Jim Giles This article courtesy of Nature News.

Police questioning and scent of scandal don't seem to tarnish the UK science minister's reputation for simply being good at his job.

The life and career of Lord Sainsbury of Turville contain all the ingredients of a juicy scandal. A major donor to the UK Social Democrat and then Labour parties, in 1998 he was handed a senior government post minister for science and innovation that is normally reserved for elected politicians. Links between that post and his private commercial interests were uncovered by the press. Later he admitted that he had not properly declared a multi-million loan to the Labour party. And just last week it emerged that police had questioned him as part of their "loans for peerages" inquiry, an investigation into whether some party donors have been rewarded with political appointments.

One could be forgiven for wondering how Britain's science minister has managed to remain in office for eight years. The ability to weather such storms would not appear to be one of Sainsbury's strengths: he rarely gives interviews and is far from inspiring as a public speaker. Yet none of these incidents, any one of which might have been enough to end a political career, seems to have done David Sainsbury much long-term harm.

When asked about the early criticism of how he obtained his post, Sainsbury simply replies: "I think I was asked to be minister of science because the prime minister wanted to have someone in the job and in the DTI who had both an interest in science and experience in industry. The more interesting question from my point of view is whether the scientific community and high-tech industry thinks he made a good choice."

It seems they do. Britain's scientific establishment offers little but praise and not just because science spending has soared under his watch. It seems that Sainsbury's status as a wealthy outsider devoted to science rather than politics has turned him into one of the most successful and, unusually, long-serving ministers in the current government.

"I've found few dissenting voices from the thesis that he is the best science minister for two decades," says Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the House of Commons select committee on science and technology.

Buying in

Such an endorsement would have seemed unlikely when Sainsbury entered the House of Lords in October 1997. Labour had just returned to power and the appointment was interpreted by some as a reward for donations, reported to be in excess of £1 million, that Sainsbury had made to the party. When he was made science minister less than a year later, critics said that a wealthy businessman his family's supermarket chain has left him with a fortune estimated at £1-2 billion had bought not just a title but a position of power that should have gone to an elected politician.

That continues to be a point of contention today. "You've got a minister of science who is unelected," notes Ian Gibson, a Labour MP and former chair of the science select committee. "Lots of people are worried. They'd rather have someone from the Commons."

We could not have wished for a better advocate for British science.
Martin Rees,
president of the Royal Society.
But worse was to come for Sainsbury. At the end of 1990s, the British press found a new evil in the form of 'Frankenfoods': genetically modified crops that were vilified as a hazard to human health and the environment. Sainsbury was linked to this technology through his former sponsorship of agricultural biotechnology research and ownership of shares in plant bioscience firms. Many critics felt that these relationships compromised his position as minister, despite the fact that he insisted they had all been severed when he took up office. At times, calls for his resignation were an almost daily occurrence.

Yet he remains in his post. And if, as widely expected, the chancellor Gordon Brown becomes prime minister next year, he could become the longest-serving minister in the current government.

Business sense

This longevity stems from two achievements. Although Brown is usually credited with the hike in science spending, which is up 70% since 1997 to £2.5 billion, politicians say Sainsbury's role as a business-savvy advocate for science was critical. "He was able to present a plausible case for the need to spend," says Willis.

Sainsbury also talks to scientists and acts on what they say. The first tranche of government money was, for example, channelled into infrastructure projects that the community said were sorely needed, allowing for the building of new facilities such as the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions at the University of Edinburgh. In 2004, he helped to create a ten-year science and innovation framework an unusually long-term strategy in comparison with the research plans produced by previous UK governments.

Despite the fact that much of the new money has been spent on applied rather than fundamental studies, in line with his commitment to wealth creation, Sainsbury has managed to win support from those who represent basic research. "We've been fortunate to have a distinguished, long-term and committed incumbent in a post which might otherwise have been held by a succession of transient junior ministers," says Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. "We could not have wished for a better advocate for British science."

Questions raised

That kind of backing is one reason why recent questions about his subsequent donations have generated much less attention. This April, he admitted that he had failed to declare a £2 million loan, saying that he confused it with a £2 million donation made at the same time, which he had declared. On 13 July, his office confirmed that Sainsbury was the latest Labour supporter to have been questioned by police over allegations that donors have effectively bought positions in the House of Lords. Yet despite the opportunity to score political points, opposition parties seem to have decided not to focus on Sainsbury this time round.

Paradoxically, it may be Sainsbury's status as a wealthy businessman that has earned him a degree of trust. As Susan Greenfield, president of the Royal Institution, points out, he isn't in it for the money. "He could be sitting on a yacht somewhere," she says; instead, he seems to be doing a job he loves, because he cares about it.

"The job of minister for science and innovation is the perfect job from my point of view because it combines my lifelong interest in science and industry," says Sainsbury. "I can't see myself wanting to move to any other job in government."

Concerns about whether a serving minister should also be a major party donor will continue to be voiced. But as long as Sainsbury keeps up his low-profile but effective championing of British science, he is likely to fight off such attacks, and survive a few more reshuffles.

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