Just finished listening to the Times Higher Education debate titled Blue Skies Ahead? featuring Brian Cox as the chair and including Paul Drayson (the Science Minister) on the panel. It also featured a number of other young scientists but it ended up being dominated by Paul Drayson (although this was more because most questions were fired at him than because he explicitly tried to take over).
It was quite interesting and although Paul Drayson comes across reasonably well I think he generally seems to miss the point. One of the issues was the inclusion of impact in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). His argument was that it is retrospective and is intended to make scientists think about the impact of their research and allow future funding to depend on past impact. One of the criticisms is that to a certain extent this is what peer review does anyway to which he responded, well what’s the problem then? The problem – as pointed out well by someone in the audience – is that it is generally accepted (and supposedly this has been studied) that adding these kind of impact assessments has a negative effect on future impact. Yes, we need some kind of review process to determine the value of proposed research (or how well a particular university has done in the recent past) but when you try to define – too narrowly – the assessment criteria, people (organisations?) start to play games to optimise how well they satisfy these criteria and ultimately research impact suffers.
The other point I think he missed is the issue of the funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The Science and Technology Facilities Council manages all major UK research facilities (including international partnerships such as ESA, ESO, and CERN), but also directly funds research in Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics. The problem is that STFC has a £40 million hole (or what is now referred to as a hole) in its budget which is likely to significantly affect upcoming research grant applications. According to Paul Drayson, STFC was given a sufficient budget and any problems are poor management (in which case, why are they still there) or projects running over budget. His views seems to be that if projects run over budget then something else has to suffer and it is not reasonable to expect the government to step in and help, or to take money from other research councils to help STFC. I would agree with him if the only scientists who exploit STFC facilities were STFC funded scientists, but they’re not. STFC manages all major UK research facilities so why should STFC scientists be the only ones to suffer when STFC projects cost more than expected.
All in all, I thought Paul Drayson is genuinely interested in reaching some kind of consensus and is really trying to listen to the views of others, but ultimately I don’t think he quite gets all of the subtleties of the situation. My impression is that he is a better politician than scientist.