The transcript for the latest IUSS evidence session on "Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy" is now available. This is coupled with Science Question time and makes interesting reading.
The issue of the debate over the future of science policy in the UK was, of course, discussed. The committee was a bit confused over statements made by the science minister about a need for debate and those of John Denham that effectively said the debate was over. I was very confused by this as well and I cannot say that my confusion has been resolved.
You do seem to get a different answer to the same question depending on who you ask in DIUS, yet they say that the answers are the same and everyone is in agreement. I must be missing something there, but inspection of the transcript sheds no further light. Baffling!
Anyway, Paul Drayson wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, 'Built on Brainpower', which led to a very noteworthy letter from Professor George Efstathiou in response. I reproduce said letter below:
Lord Drayson argues that the government is committed to funding curiosity-driven research. He needs to talk to the chairman (Peter Warry) and chief executive (Keith Mason) of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Their message, both to me in person and to the scientific community, has been unambiguous - the government, and the Treasury in particular, are interested only in new projects that have direct economic impact. It doesn't matter if we have the greatest ideas for projects to study the big bang or the properties of fundamental particles; these will fall on deaf ears unless we can articulate clearly the resulting "economic benefits".
Lord Drayson needs to tackle this evident lack of communication between government and the research councils.
Professor George Efstathiou
University of Cambridge
There is a clear and continuing problem with science in the UK and it stems from the communication from government, through the upper reaches of DIUS to the interaction with the research council and thence to the scientific community.
Hostility that exists toward the whole circus surrounding 'economic impact' is not just because academics live in their ivory towers and want to be left alone (some do - not all), it is because we constantly get mixed messages about how EI should or does work in terms of effects on funding decisions. Until there is an effort for everyone to get 'on-message' (whatever that message might be) then confusion and distrust will continue. I am far from convinced the the current STFC CEO is capable of ending this distrust as I am not convinced that he knows what the government really wants even as he itches to enact their decisions.