Clouds on blue-sky horizon

Contra Lord Drayson, BIS' emphasis on applied knowledge may threaten the future of UK science, says Colin Stuart

July 9, 2009

During the fallout from last month's Cabinet reshuffle, Lord Drayson was in the pit lane at Le Mans, checking on his team, Drayson Racing. From there he was able to pick up a message I had posted on Twitter, the social networking website.

I had voiced my anxieties about his new joint role in science and defence, as well as science being submerged in the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

To his credit - and my surprise - he replied, asking what my concerns were. From this quick exchange of 140 characters, a debate ensued between me (@skyponderer), Lord Drayson (@lorddrayson) and several of my fellow Twitterers.

I was concerned that science would suffer in the new set-up by being engulfed by the needs of business and defence. To me, it sends out the message that the discipline is either about raking in the readies or preparing for the next war. My fears were by no means eased when Lord Mandelson, speaking at an event marking the Science Museum's centenary, suggested that applied science would receive "greater emphasis".

What about pure science? What about science for the sheer pursuit of knowledge, to quench curiosity, or to simply understand why? Pie-in-the-sky thinking, you might say, but when it comes to pure science answering the big questions, history shows the benefits.

During the Twitter debate, Lord Drayson took up the challenge from Times Higher Education to defend his new role. In his article last week, he argued that science's crucial role in the development of weaponry has had spin-off benefits: just look at ultrasound. This is a cheap point, as pure science has its applications, too.

Take, for example, particle-physics experiments at Cern. Their spin-offs include medical scanners that can detect the early signs of cancer, as well as the invention of the very platform that enabled our initial debate, the internet.

Both pure and applied science have an impact on our daily lives. I know Lord Drayson is not suggesting we abolish the former, but to privilege the latter because it has concrete applications in the here and now is more than myopic. The reshuffle lacks vision and has the potential to fail pure science.

He crows about how science is now at the epicentre of Whitehall, but shouldn't it be there anyway? Why is it so undervalued that the only way it can get to the top table is by piggybacking on its politically more muscular siblings?

This political muscle could undermine science further. With ongoing unrest in several parts of the world, what happens if a big political, or even an actual, bomb explodes? Surely more time would have to be dedicated to defence and science would suffer.

Lord Drayson argues that by making the Science Minister a Cabinet-level appointment, the Prime Minister is signalling the importance of science. I would argue that this doesn't show great foresight, only a previous oversight.

Nationally and globally, we face many important questions when it comes to our relationship with science. It plays a key role in decisions about climate change, sustainable food sources, energy production and health, to name but a few. Doesn't all this deserve a full-time Science Minister?

If you are going to combine government departments in the name of better communication, why not combine science and health? To me, that looks like a much happier marriage.

It seems the cracks in the Cabinet are being papered over by talk of greater interdepartmental communication. But is it not more likely that with the recent spate of high-level resignations, the pool of political talent available is drying up, and by spreading what talent is left more thinly, science will suffer?

Lord Drayson's use of emerging networks such as Twitter to reach ordinary members of the public is to be applauded, and for now I will take his assurances at face value. I just hope we don't look back on this reshuffle as the day that science, and pure science in particular, lost.

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