Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Westminster Skeptics

Went along to my second Westminster Skeptics meeting last night to listen to Prof. Brian Cox, Evan Harris (MP and Lib-Dem science minister) and Nick Dusic (CaSE - Campaign for Science and Engineering) all talk about science policy as an election issues (Lord Drayson and Adam Afriyie, the Labour and Conservative science minsters respectivly were invited but didn't come).

Most of the evenings talk was preaching to the choir: it seemed to be pretty well aknowledged that science produces a overall rise in GDP (ie it you get a positive return on investment); that our economy is heavily supported by "knowledge intensive services and hight-tech manufacturing" (40% gross value added,GVA, according to the Royal Society publication on the issue that was the main basis for most of what was said - found here); that science should be publicly funded and allowed to pursue 'blue sky' as well as applied research.

There was  a lot of discussion as to how difficult it is to fund science with the aim of making direct profit (ie no one in the 1980's would argue to fund CERN and expect it to produce the web) and on strategies to increase or maximise enteurpenurship within science. This centered mainly around whether the maxim that the UK "is good on science but bad on moneterisation" is true. My main thoughts are that in all areas this is tricky: firstly where obvious advancements can be made there is a lot of tough competition (for example medicine, how many people are looking to cure cancer) making it entirely possible (if not likely) that your prize research will be scooped by someone else while the bigger 'jackpots' (eg CERN and the net) are nearly impossible to predict so making investing directly for them infeasible. This means that the whole system relies on scientists spotting the implications for moneterisation themselves then being interested enough, able enough and lucky enough to get funding and support for it. I have no solutions other than better support and as much dialogue and funding as possible (and yes it's always more funding).

There was also an interesting (to me at least as they fund me) discussion on the future of the STFC.

I'm not going to weigh in on the politics of the STFC situation here, mainly because I don't know all the details and know enough people that do that I stand a good chance of being shot down very rapidly.  The biggest problem as I see it is not so much the loss of specific projects (which admittedly for those involved is devestating: imagine being told that your passion for the last 3 years isn't funded so go do something else) but the long lasting damage to our credibility as a scientific nation.

I'm not a big fan of patriotism and its ilk, I consider it a useless if not damaging passion, but I will say that when it comes to large scale projects (some of these projects are huge for example X-fel has 71 universities and institutes listed for authors of its Technical Design Report*) you need to maintain national credibility. It is this national credibility that the UK risks losing by letting down the partners of the 26 projects that we are withdrawing from. Countries won't collaborate with us if they think that we'll cut funding 3 years down the line and that means fewer projects that UK physicists will be able to work on. Ultimately if there is less world-class work for UK physicists they will move to where there is work, either the US (which openly has said they want to import 'the best minds'), within Europe (the support for science in Germany and France is pretty huge) or even further abroad (Japan spends nearly 3% of its GDP on science). Currently the UK has an amazing position scientifically within the global community but we can lose it and then to regain it is a huge cost that I doubt we'll be able to afford, especially when 40% of our GVA follows.

*Incidently x-fel is the project that my PhD work is for and is one of the projects whose central, STFC, funding was cut, luckily this didn't involve the removal of my PhD funding as my university is directly involved with x-fel rather than via the STFC

No comments:

Post a Comment