Paul Drayson recently gave the Nairn Lecture in Oxford and the title of his speech was “Science: where now?”. Apart from mentioning how successful and clever he had been, it seemed to focus primarily on the relationship between scientific research and economic impact. He specifically states “our capacity to create wealth from science needs to improve – to deliver the strong economic growth and jobs”. If any have read my other posts you will know that I am not a fan of the current impact agenda. This is not because I think scientific research shouldn’t deliver impact, it’s because I don’t believe what is being introduced will in any way help scientific research to deliver more impact and will ultimately be a complete waste of time and money.
It’s my view that if the government wants scientific research to deliver more impact, it should be putting more pressure on industry to communicate with researchers and to take more risks. To me, this is illustrated by the following statement taken from Paul Drayson’s speech
“I remind you that it was UK scientists who invented ultrasound. It was UK scientists who sequenced DNA. It was UK scientists who made the breakthrough on plastic electronics. It was UK scientists who got there first on monoclonal antibodies. In each case, commercialisation happened elsewhere.”
What I think he is trying to say here is that researchers in the UK have been very good at doing world class research, but very bad at exploiting it. This may indeed be true, but what it actually illustrates – in my view – is that UK industry is very poor at exploiting the world class research that takes place in this country. Is it reasonable to expect scientific researchers to do both the research and the exploitation (at the moment I seem to barely have time for the research). In my opinion, it is not. What motivates researchers is solving the puzzle, what motivates entrepreneurs and industrialists is presumably exploiting the results of the research. Providing a way for entrepreneurs and industrialists to exploit the results of research done in the UK with public money (assuming that an appropriate amount of the resulting wealth remains in the public sector) seems perfectly reasonable. Doing it by suggesting that the world class researchers should do better does not.
The more I encounter Paul Drayson, the less impressed I am. We may well have a problem in the way in which we deliver impact from scientific research. Trying to fix this by putting more pressure on those who are doing their part well, however, seems simplistic and short-sighted. Part of me is pleased that he probably only has a few months left as science minister. Another part is terrified by what we will get in his place.