Putting the 'public' in UK plc

Science politics could get mighty difficult for those of us prone to mixing up names.  What with Lord Drayson as Science Minister. And Sir James Dyson advising the Conservative Party.  We might need to look twice when next going to our understairs cupboard.

 Two of Drayson’s predecessors as Science Minister – Lord Sainsbury and Lord Waldegrave – were on the stump on Tuesday morning to launch the Royal Society’s new report ‘The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity.’  And in what was a busy day for science, just down the road Sir James was publishing his thoughts – entitled ‘Ingenious Britain’ – on what the Conservatives should do to support science if they form the next Government.

The Royal Society is one of those institutions that – for better or for worse – stands like a stone colonnade propping up the country’s currently battered roof.  Indeed, it has the rather difficult task of navigating its 350th anniversary this year.  I say difficult because anniversaries can so often become an occasion to fossilise rather than move forward.  Happily not so in this case.  I was mildly impressed with their report and one gets the sense that – ever since the arrival of Peter Cotgreave and James Wilsdon there – they have become a much more switched on organisation politically and their policy work much more robust.

On the other hand James Dyson’s free-form ideas and energy are just as vital to the debate.  His report is inevitably less constrained than the Royal Society’s and his proposals merit consideration for they indicate how a Conservative Government might think about science and innovation.  His proposal to allow some universities to free themselves from Full Economic Costing (fEC) is unsettling.  On the other hand I was pleased that he had taken time to think about some aspects of public engagement – as compared to the blander commitment in the Royal Society’s publication.   However, it all seemed a little too (albeit inevitably) industry-biased in its discussion about collaboration with the role and contribution of research charities a glaring omission despite them being mentioned in the title of the relevant chapter.

Nonetheless, it is good to see such an active debate within the science community ahead of the General Election.  But it is just that, a debate ‘within’  a pretty rarified community rather than with others, not least the general public.  Perhaps that doesn’t matter.  I think it does. 

Otherwise it is in danger of all becoming rather, well, er, academic.  It also seems ironic that in all the arguments that everyone is putting forward about science being important to ‘UK plc’ as they call it, we forget that the ‘p’  stands for ‘public.’  It is people whose money, ideas and support keep science alive at the end of the day.  

I shall finish by sharing three reminders that I had of this in just the last week and which I shall simply call: money, insight, and faith: 

– The gentleman who was rightly acknowledged at Tuesday evening’s launch of Arthritis Research UK (formerly known as Arthritis Research Campaign)  for the work he had done to raise £1 million for arthritis research, much of it by shaking a tin outside Sainsbury’s (the supermarket, not the aformentioned Peer’s homestead)  in all weathers.

– The elderly woman from Tingewick in Buckingham who took the time to write to me last week suggesting that different industries sponsor research into different diseases i.e. engineering for multiple sclerosis, supermarkets for alzheimer’s.  There is a hint of simple magic in that idea.

– The congregation of Sanderstead School of the Spirit in Croydon who I spoke to one evening last week about ethical dilemmas in medical research.  They posed difficult, challenging questions, had given careful and considered thought to the issues. quoted PD James and were keen to back science, those who do it and what it might promise.

Now they knew their Drayson from their Dyson.

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