CaSE Science Debate

I watched and listened – last night – to the Science and Engineering Policy Debate between Adam Afriyie (Shadow Science and Innovation Minister), Paul Drayson (the current Minister for Science and Innovation) and Evan Harris (the Liberal Democrat science spokesman).  The debate was organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and was chaired by Roger Highfiled, the editor of New Scientist.  I was a bit disappointed as I was rather selfishly hoping that the STFC situation would be discussed in more detail and that there would be more discussion about including the assessment of “impact” in future funding decisions.   Both of these were covered, but only briefly, and the debate was explicitly steered towards more of a discussion about future science policy, rather than a discussion of existing issues, and each candidate was pushed to give their partys’s views on various topics.  This was okay, but it did mean that a broad range of topics were covered and that nothing was really covered in any detail.  The three speakers were all extremely polite and complimentary about each other, so nothing particularly exciting happened.  Adam Afriyie even commented that Paul Drayson was a good Science Minister who was probably in the wrong party. As good as Paul Drayons may or may not be, I’m somewhat disturbed by the fact that the he is unelected, and the fact that one can qualify to be a government minister by being made a Lord seems somewhat archaic and undemocratic.  The same is true for Peter Mandelson and the less said about that the better.

Overall I thought Adam Afriyie was a little benign.  Didn’t say anything that I particularly liked or disliked.  Paul Drayson was disappointing.  I quite like the fact that he’s on Twitter and that he seems to be trying to listen to others and to actually take on board what they are saying, but whenever I listen to him I get the impression that he really doesn’t get the subtleties of scientific research.  He also seems to be spouting more and more of the standard party rhetoric and had to be pushed to use the word “cuts” rather than “efficiency savings”.  He still regurgitates the rather simplistic arguments about why including impact statements is a good thing and that it won’t have a negative impact on fundamental research.  He also stated that the government needs to fund more applied research in order to help the economy as if this was obvious and didn’t really merit much discussion.  I don’t have a problem with applied research at all, but nothing the government does now regarding research funding (apart from possibly using a Keynesian approach and increasing it) is going to fix the current recession, so increasing funding for applied research to help the economy now is almost certainly not going to work.   Another issue I have with increasing the amount of government funding for applied research is that it could further discourage industry (which in my view is where a lot of applied research should take place) from investing in research.  The government should really be putting more pressure on industry to take more risks, not spending taxpayers money on research that will be of short or medium term benefit to industry.  As decent as I think Paul Drayon is trying to be, I personally don’t think he’s a particularly good Science Minister and I’m not particularly confident about the outcome of his review of STFC that is due to be completed by the end of February (although I am at least pleased that he has recognised that there is a problem).

Evan Harris, on the other hand, was fantastic.  He was very well informed and a lot of comments were hard-hitting and direct.  He was also hilarious.  Maybe he shouldn’t try quite as hard to be funny, but he is pretty good at it.  Could almost be a comedian.  I was really impressed by how he performed and by what he presented as the Liberal Democrats’s views about how science should be funded and what kind of role it should play in society.  I particularly liked his argument that politicians who misuse data and statistics should be hammered for doing so.  I’m really hoping that the Liberal Democrats do well in the upcoming elections, but am not particularly hopeful.  The media seems to largely write them off as having no hope and I’m not quite sure why this is.  I’m starting to suspect that the various media outlets are too strongly tied to individual political parties and as a result the different parties are not getting objectively represented (I may be saying something patently obvious here).  I suspect the fact that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to form the next government gives them the freedom to say what they like and to make promises that they might never have to keep, but I’m not sure we should hold that against them and I’m quite prepared at this stage to take them at face value.  Labour and the Conversatives have proven that when they’re in government they can’t keep their promises, so maybe it’s time to give the Liberal Democrats their chance.  Really can’t be any worse, can it?

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