Last night I attended the ‘Blue Skies Ahead’ debate (#sciblue on Twitter) imagining that the focus of the meeting would be discussion of blue skies research, and the place of such fundamental/basic research in the thinking and future plans of government. Some nice blogs that explain the purpose of and background to the meeting have already appeared, my aim here will be to try and avoid unnecessary repetition.
Lord Drayson (science minister) took centre stage and he fielded a wide range of questions with a combination of honesty, integrity, and (worryingly) at times confusion. Nevertheless, in 25 years in medical research, I found it refreshing and unusual to have a science minister willing to talk directly to scientists – and scientists at all levels. So, top marks to Lord Drayson, the THE, and the physicists and astronomers who organised the event.
Although the debate attempted to cover too wide a range of topics, and ‘blue skies’ research barely featured, there was at least some impassioned discussion of the Govt’s ‘impact agenda’. On this issue it appeared that Lord Drayson was not aware of the important difference between the need to provide a retrospective analysis of the impact of research for the purposes of RAE/REF/HEFCE, and the new demands of the RCUK to provide a ‘predictive’ assessment of the impact of proposed research, as part of future grant applications. The obvious problem is that blue skies research, by definition, is research where the outcomes cannot be predicted, hence any attempt to assess possible impact might as well resort to astrology or the inspection of goat’s entrails. See also http://somebeans.blogspot.com/2009/12/short-story-about-scientific-impact_01.html for a good illustration of how impact analysis doesn’t work.
Lord Drayson emphasised the need for scientists to impress government with the importance of their work in order to justify/safeguard future funding. Few would disagree with this, but there is the potential for internecine division lurking beneath the surface, that could too easily lead to in-fighting between scientists competing for shares of a shrinking pot of funding. It is important that scientists do not end up squabbling over the meagre resources available, and that instead we challenge the government to invest at similar levels to our major competitors (such as France and Germany). The arguments for increasing science funding should be utterly compelling since UUK, through teaching and research, will be central to wealth generation in the years ahead.
The topic that concluded the debate, namely the teaching of science (and particularly physics) at high school level, was of obvious importance but discordant with the theme of the evening.
I hope Lord Drayson will continue to talk to scientists, and that a much needed debate of blue skies research may yet take place.