Science, we have a problem

Debate leads to anger over Lord Drayson’s accusation that scientists don’t fully recognise their accountability to taxpayers. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 1, 2009

The Science Minister has come under fire from researchers who fear that the Government’s focus on the economic impact of research could damage the UK’s science base.

At a Times Higher Education debate at the Wellcome Collection in London last night, Lord Drayson and a panel of young scientists laid out their hopes and fears for the future of UK science.

At the event, entitled “Blue skies ahead? The prospects for UK science”, Lord Drayson argued that scientists who receive money from the public purse have a duty to “think more” about how their work benefits the economy and society.

“Scientists should be accountable where work is funded by the taxpayer and therefore I think it is right that scientists should be asked to think about the impact that they have had,” Lord Drayson said at the debate, which was chaired by scientist and radio presenter Brian Cox.

He said that if the science community “has a problem” with this principle then “we have a problem”.

His fear, he said, was that unless scientists began to take impact more seriously, any incoming science minister would be in a weaker position to argue for the science budget.

Scientists’ accountability to taxpayers, he said, was the basis for the introduction of an impact component into the forthcoming research excellence framework, which will replace the research assessment exercise as the mechanism used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to distribute about £2 billion in research funding annually.

“[The REF] is about developing a framework that works in practice. But a fundamental principle is 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,” he said.

Britain, he said, had been “absolutely brilliant” at carrying out scientific research, but the impact this has had on the country’s development had been below par.

“The scientific research we have done in the past has had not enough impact on the wider society, our economy, our public realm,” he said.

His comments were met with disdain from some members of the audience and the panel.

Scientists did recognise their accountability to taxpayers, argued Colin Stuart, astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and chair of the young scientists’ panel.

The problem was that they could not gaze into “crystal balls” to predict the outcome of research projects in advance – as is now required by research councils as part of grant applications, and which would be the likely result with the proposed 25 per cent weighting given to impact in the REF.

Also questioned was whether the REF – which is based on impact achieved from past work – goes back far enough, given the time lags in achieving impact, and whether requiring peer reviewers to assess impact fell within academics’ competence.

John Dainton, professor of physics at the University of Liverpool and fellow of the Royal Society, said: “Every time government or management or bureaucracy has stepped in to distort peer review it has been shown that the science that comes out is less good than otherwise.”

Other topics raised included the ongoing financial crisis at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is currently undertaking a review to determine which projects it will have to cut to balance its books after exchange rate fluctuations pushed up the costs of international facility subscriptions.

On the STFC, Lord Drayson said he recognised the “significant problems” the council faced, but that it was up to the STFC to balance its books. “The job of a research council is to manage its budget,” he said.

Scientists need to stop pretending in an “unreal way” that science is disconnected from the Government’s budgeting decisions and that more money could simply be injected, he added.

“You have got to work within the existing systems... [otherwise] science is not going to be able to make an effective case. It is no good pretending that you can fund science in a fundamentally different way to the way in which you fund education or health.”

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