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Monday, November 17, 2008

Inquiring after Science

(Warning: long post!)
There have been a number of developments in recent days regarding science in the UK.

Paul Crowther points to Why Science is Important; "a collection of thoughts from leading scientists, public figures, ...and you." Paul himself, has a post on there as does John Womersley.

Another, more important development is that the IUSS parliamentary select committee has initiated another inquiry:

PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART OF GOVERNMENT POLICY


As the name implies, this is a potentially important subject and one that all UK scientists should pay very special attention to.

The deadline for written evidence submission is Monday the 12th January 2009. Although that seems some time away with the Christmas break coming up it is sooner than one might think in terms of working days. This is something that academics need to get involved in and we should pressure our representative bodies to respond to this ASAP; whether that be the RAS, IoP or whoever

Evidence is being invited on the following issues and I add my thoughts (under-developed as they are) after each section:

1.

whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science

Yes.

Obviously we are moving into interesting times regarding economic growth (or lack thereof) and under 'normal' circumstances one could argue that spending on science is a low priority. However I think it is time for a major rethink by government - relying on the city to drive the economy has not proved as reliable as this and the previous Conservative government might have thought.

Current speculation is that borrowing is going to shoot up in order to provide tax-cuts and government spending to further stimulate the economy. Whether this is the right approach I will leave for the economists to argue over but I would suggest that government seriously consider the need for a strong plank upon which to place the economy; a service industry seems to be undesirable at the moment and our industrial base is pretty much spent in real terms.

Our best hope is to keep moving in a direction that the government had at least been looking at: science and innovation. Most of the biggest problems facing the UK (and the world) today need science and technology solutions - investing in the infrastructure to drive more research and science now is one way in which the government can look ahead to the post recession future.

The best way to do this is to have a Department for Science, this would liaise with DIUS (or its successor) and education so as to maximise our ability to attract young minds to science. It also sends the message that government is serious about science and recognises the essential role it needs to play in the future of the UK. Remember, science is something that we are good at and have a reputation (however tarnished it might have been recently in certain quarters) for being good at. Extracting science from the same department as universities, or higher education, or business may seem an odd step but by separating it out it no longer competes for attention in an internal miasma ; rather it is in a position to work hand-in-hand with those departments on an equal footing and can contribute effectively to other departments (transport, environment, etc). Science is at the heart of most things, if only in the way that scientists are trained to approach problems; we need to recognise that and step up our commitment to science.

2.
how Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)

This is something I need to get into in more depth before properly providing an answer but I can sketch out some thoughts.

In principle Government decides how much it is going to give each area of science and then leaves it to the Research councils to sub-divide further; that is their interpretation of the Haldane principle. Recently they have invested in the environment (NERC) and health (MRC) whilst downplayed basic physics and engineering (STFC and EPSRC). This effectively sets policy and encourages 'losing' councils to look towards areas where they might attract more funding. This is not completely unreasonable since the government always has to have an eye to the economic and social problems facing the UK and marshall its forces (spending) where it perceives that it can do the most good.

Unfortunately government can sometimes maneuver itself into a position where it ends up doing more harm than good (cf. recent STFC debacle). Another example is David King, someone who has championed directed research at the expense of basic science - in my opinion a dangerous and short-sighted approach. Clearly government needs broader advice structures and ideally not people who play the games of politics; co-opted working scientists of mid-to high level career stages are the best people. The worst thing is for science to be directed by a narrow group (or even one person) as it provides no balance or checks. This is an issue for the research councils to consider as well; councils that try to interpret government policy rather than develop their own view with their user-base are in danger of limiting advancement.

3.
whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy, and how the success of any consultation is assessed

Hell yes! See above.

But with a careful caveat. The temptation will always be there to champion for our own areas. Balance must be maintained and this means that we must normalise for the size of community. For example, it would be ridiculous to have a review of research that contained at least two different areas, one of which was much larger than the other. In a situation like that any metric would need to include a measure of normalization otherwise the larger community would simply swallow the resources of the smaller. This is a patently absurd state of affairs.

4.
the case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating

An interesting question and not one I have thought too much about. A regional policy could be a way to offset the feedback loop that can damage science thoughout the country.

What do I mean? Good science and scientists are attracted to places where science is seen to flourish and attract funding [cough]golden triangle[cough]. Of course this means that funding shrinks from other places and without the resources to compete they will eventually fade away. The implementation of a robust regional policy would help to smooth this out by ensuring that competing areas remain and would solve some of the problems surrounding Harwell and Daresbury.

I think Haldane needs to be reviewed. As it stands I am concerned that it is broken since there seems to be a feeling that research councils are de facto arms of government rather than independent bodies.

5.
engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy
An important topic, without it, number 1 is moot.


6.
the role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy

I think there is something to be said for learned bodies leading the way in policy formulation. At a lower level I have some concerns over research councils developing their own strategies; it makes more sense to me that relevant bodies should be funded to develop the strategy for them - this removes the onus from the council who can then move to the business of administering funds and facilities to fulfill that strategy. It also blocks the possibility that strategy is formulated by a select few who may or may not have an agenda. The same can be said for larger policy - steering is obviously required but by including all stakeholders in the decision making process we boost confidence in UK science policy and create transparency. It also provides the science and wider community (who are tax payers) the opportunity to feel invested in the process.

7.

how government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised
Heavily! Often! Carefully!


Obviously my comments are just random thoughts that I have bashed out on the fly. The science community as a whole needs to think carefully about these issues and contribute to the debate. We also need to rally the public behind us so that we can develop the scientists of tomorrow and build an science-economic model that is robust and enduring.

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