[The definite article] and why it stands in the way of a definitive plan for UK science

****you might also like to read William Cullerne Bown’s analysis of the Science Minister’s speech referred to in this blog and which appeared on the same day as that below***

Yesterday the Royal Society posted on its website the full text of Lord Rees’ Christmas Lecture to the Science and Policy Research Centre. Its worth a read for its very grounded comments about the role of scientific advisers and scientific advice in Government, and why scientific evidence can’t reign supreme in a policy or political context.

It is the sort of grounding I was in need of, after a day – thoroughly absorbing I hasten to add, attending an expert seminar of the Administrative Data Taskforce.  This is the group set up under the Government’s plan for economic growth to look at how data sets held by different Government departments could and should be linked in the public interest.  Inevitably, I found myself in the sub-group looking at public engagement.  It’s an occupational hazard I am afraid.

The public.  Now there’s a thing.

Or should I say [the definite article] public.  For, funny how easily public engagement work can become stymied by a desire of its architects to, first, make a pre-emptive strike on the definite article.

We must pin ‘the’ public down before we ask them.  We must know who they are.  We must see the whites of their eyes.  As if they were somehow an elusive enemy that we need to label to make sense of our own insecurity and fit our academicness.   On the other hand we could engage – talk, listen and learn – first, and then begin to design our future discourse with ‘the public.’ 

I digress.

Lord Rees and, indeed, the definite article, came to mind as I tonight pondered the reaction to the Science Minister, David Willett’s, recent speech in which he said he wanted to make the UK ‘the best place in the world to do science.’  He also ventured a few ideas such as a new science university funded by business and those with lots of money.

I say ‘reaction’ because apart from one or two very thoughtful pieces – especially this by Richard Jones , a rapid response by the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and the Russell Group‘s pre-emptive declaration the day before that it had set up a special group to look at business and industry collaboration (you mean they didn’t have one before, go figure?), comment from around the world of science has been somewhat lacking and certainly not unified.  Well, apart from people saying they were still looking for Government to express ‘the vision.’ 

Lord Rees came to mind because I recall attending a meeting chaired by him in the days after the Spending Review announcement.  The relief of the great and good in the room was palpable.  But it was the sort of relief expressed by someone who has had a bank loan approved, not that which is about getting the go-ahead to shoot for the moon.  The forensic disassembling of the announcement there and then by many, was prescient given what we now know about the funding picture.

Nonetheless, it was agreed by all that unity had been vital – Science is Vital – to getting a better than expected result from Government and that this unity needed to be solidly maintained behind a shared vision.  Willetts has also said so himself on many occasions since.

In pondering today’s unfolding picture I wonder whether the science community is now on the verge of failing itself and its Minister, of losing the momentum of the Spending Review campaign.  It certainly does not seem to have moved on from those days.  Yes, the concerns over funding, impact and other issues are heartfelt and significant.  But, without care, the near-term view of these matters is potentially energy-sapping for all concerned; they distract from the bigger task of setting out where we want to be.

In  my view, it seems to want to pin Willetts down until he has served up the definite article in a palatable form, rather than serving up its own comprehensive plan, in a unified manner and with a strong lobby behind it.  At the moment one perceives a lack of coherence and more than a hint of parochialism, or worse still, of it being just a little non-plussed by events and having gone to ground.  And for all these reasons I have some sympathy for the Minister.

Shortly after I became Chief Executive at AMRC in early 2006, David Cooksey published his review of health research.  Eager to impress and make a mark, I banged out a news release with the usual words of welcome while highlighting what I thought was the most important aspect.  Let’s just say it wasn’t quite like any other people’s releases.

The day after the announcement a few CEOs of shall we say the more well-known medical research charities rang me to advise me from firing from the hip.  Although I took umbrage at the time, I now understand why they did.  It wasn’t what I said that mattered, so much as the appearance it gave that we were not singing from the same hymn sheet. More over that the vision and its acceptance and articulation by the Government had been hard-fought for and not to be lost cheaply.  The legacy of that can be seen in the strengthening of NIHR, the funding of health research and the life sciences announcement before Christmas.

I am one step removed from the science debate now, so who am I to comment?  But science needs to up its game if it really is serious about ‘the vision’ for UK science.  Only then will we see the definitive document.

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