I listened to most of the Science debate, a couple of days ago, between Adam Afriyie, Evan Harris and Paul Drayson. Couldn’t quite listen to it all because my daughter decided to be diligent and practice her guitar and insisted on me helping. The debate was pretty good, but it hasn’t really done much to change my view of the different parties. I find Adam Afriyie unconvincing and insincere. He also insists on stating things like the UK has the highest deficit and the worst debt, none of which is strictly true (as far as I can tell). I know our economy isn’t in good shape, but when I look at the data it doesn’t look much worse then Germany, for example, and seems better than the US. It appears as though the conservatives are going to continue to insist that the UK economy is in dire straits, that it is all Labour’s fault and that there is therefore no chance of extra investment in anything (or conversely, they are unable to suggest that extra investment might be possible because this would imply that the economy isn’t quite as bad as they want it to appear and therefore Labour hasn’t done as bad a job as they would like us to think).
I’m still not particularly impressed with Paul Drayson. Part of this is clearly because I don’t like a system in which people can become part of government by being made Lords. However, I do think that he is really listening to what he is being told and is trying to reach some kind of consensus. He has recognised problems with the structure of STFC and has come up with what appears to be a reasonable solution (although no reversal of the cuts to the grants line). He did, however, say something a little odd. He made the comment that the £600 million cut to HE funding and science funding is a cut on an as yet undefined budget and therefore doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in funding. I guess that if the message gets through in time, the HE and science budgets could be set at a level such that a £600 million cut can be included without a reduction in the budget and without anyone losing face. Still seems rather odd to announce a cut but then suggest that this doesn’t necessarily imply a reduction in the budget (although it was Peter Mandelsson who announced the cut, not Paul Drayson).
Paul Drayson also went through his arguments for the inclusion of impact statements in grant applications. One was that evidence is needed to help make the case for doing research. I happen to agree with this. I just don’t see how academics writing statements about how their research “might” have impact qualifies as evidence. There must be a way to get evidence that is more concrete than this . The other argument he made was that it is taxpayers money and therefore there is an obligation to convince the public that it is well spent. Again, I agree with this in principle. However, there is a subtlety to this that I think Paul Drayson doesn’t get (or choses not to get). Many people in the UK are in careers that rely on public funding, but we don’t necessarily expect individuals within these different areas to justify their existence. We – the public – realise the value of, for example, healthcare, education, social services, etc. The fact that he wants us as individual researchers to justify what we do implies – in my view – that in some sense research is viewed as some kind of luxury and that we are in some way privileged. Make no mistake, I do feel very lucky and privileged to get paid to do a job I enjoy and that brings me much satisfication. I just don’t believe that research is a luxury. It is a crucial part of our economy and is a primary reason why we have world class universities and graduates that can subsequently contribute significantly to our economy. Of course at some level we do have to justify how public money is spent and how much should be spent. But, like other publically funded areas, I just feel that it should be done in a much broader way. Holistic rather than reductionist. It is the science minister and the heads of funding councils who should be making the case to treasury, not individual researchers. What we as researchers and academics have to do – in my view – is to do our teaching and research to the best of our abilities, which then makes it easier for these people to make the case for HE and science funding. This is what we (or certainly me) were hired to do.
Evan Harris was, once again, fantastic. He even managed to keep his comedy (which is actually pretty funny) at what seemed like a perfectly reasonable level this time. He seems to really understand the value of universities and of university research and he makes clear and coherent arguments about how we should fund these organisations and the role of science in society. In fairness, maybe it is easier to make these kind of idealistic arguments if you’re never likely to become science minister and never have to deal with more of the realities of the job, but he makes them extremely well nonetheless. He also seems to be the only person making the argument that research funding plays a crucial role in ensuring that we have world class universities that can attract world class academics. He also seems to realise that to attract world class academics into university and research jobs, we are going to have to make sure that the career prospects are attractive. Academics and researchers are a resource but not an infinite one, and the more pressure we place on these people and the more we imply that their role is not of obvious value, the less likely we are to attract people into such careers. He also seems to recognise the issue of gender imbalance in academia and that it is not a simple problem. For some reason, women are less likely to remain in academic or research jobs and we need to do something to reverse this trend.
All in all, I’m very pleased that science is a becoming an important election issue, but concerned that the two main parties are not making a convincing case that they genuinely believe in the value of science and scientific research. I would really like to see Evan Harris playing a bigger role in making science policy, so would be quite comfortable with a hung parliament. Adam Afriyie, on the other hand, seems to think a hung parliament would be a disaster which suggests – to me at least – that what is driving the Tories is a desire to be in power, rather than a desire to play a role in developing policy that would be of benefit to the UK and its people.