Lord Drayson defends REF's principles

December 3, 2009

Travelling by train to a Cabinet meeting the morning after a Times Higher Education-sponsored debate on the future of blue-skies research, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, reported on Twitter that he was still catching up with the many responses to the event.

The night before, at the Wellcome Collection in London, the minister had questioned whether opponents of the drive to measure the impact of research were committed to being accountable to the taxpayer.

Speaking at the debate "Blue skies ahead? The prospects for UK science" on 30 November, Lord Drayson argued that scientists who receive public funding had a duty to "think more" about how their work benefits the economy and society.

This was the principle behind the introduction of an impact component in the forthcoming research excellence framework, which will be used to distribute about £2 billion in research funding every year.

Lord Drayson said: "There is a fundamental principle at stake here: does the scientific community believe that it is accountable to the taxpayer for the public funding that goes into science?

"I think if the science community has a problem with this, we have a problem."

But his comments were met with disdain from some members of the audience and debate panel.

Scientists did recognise their accountability to taxpayers, argued Colin Stuart, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and chairman of the young scientists' panel, whose Twitter exchange with Lord Drayson led to the blue-skies debate.

The problem, he said, was that scientists could not gaze into "crystal balls" to predict the outcome of research projects in advance - as is now required by research councils in grant applications.

He warned that this would be the likely outcome of the proposed 25 per cent weighting for impact in the REF.


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