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2015 UCL and the Wellcome Trust Science Policy Question Time

By ucyow3c, on 2 November 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Mr Greg Tinker and Dr Olivia Stevenson (OVPR)

pp1Five things we learned about the pressures on science in the UK

In advance of the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), an event organised by UCL and the Wellcome Trust, in the style of the BBC’s ever-popular Question Time series, sought to answer some of the most pressing questions facing the science community today.

Graeme Reid, Professor of Science and Research Policy at UCL, stepped into David Dimbleby’s shoes, putting questions from a lively audience of more than 100 people to an expert panel.

The panel included representatives from academia, funding bodies and the media and Professor Reid described their contributions as “brave, quick-thinking and well informed”. But what did we learn from their lively exploration of key science policy issues?

The science community wants to stay in the EU, but can they persuade the public?

Unpp2like the BBC’s Question Time, there was broad consensus among the panel and the audience that Britain’s membership of the EU is vital: for science research; for the growth of knowledge through EU students at UK universities and through world-leading research collaborations and partnerships. But panellist Alun Evans, Chief Executive of the British Academy, sounded a note of caution, suggesting that this debate, like the 2014 Scottish Referendum, won’t be fought on details, such as science funding. While this is “regrettable”, scientists “need to come up with arguments that make a difference to public opinion”.

Universities, or at least their Vice-Chancellors and Provosts, are likely to campaign to remain in the EU ahead of the 2017 referendum. But panel member Adam Smith, Assistant Communities Editor at the Economist, noted that, as institutions seek to fulfil their role as places of debate, will those outside universities accept that they need to be neutral spaces where all arguments can be heard?

It’s not as simple as taking money from tax credits to spend on science

The panel debated at length the value of government spending on science, research and development (R&D). Is it fair for researchers to demand more for R&D, at the expense of everything else that the government has to pay for, in these complex times? With the outcomes of the CSR just around the corner, the panel recognised that there are tough choices to be made, but now was not the time to be short sighted.

Panel member Nicola Perrin, Head of Policy at the Wellcome Trust, stressed not only the economic benefits of scientific research – more investment in research is good for growth – but also the benefits to society. “The problems of our time, including climate change, dementia and poverty, will only be solpp3ved by research, which requires investment”, she said.

Another panel member, Sarah Jackson, the Director of Research, Partnerships and Innovation at the University of Liverpool, said that the UK is in the bottom quadrant of countries for both public and private R&D investment, but the money that is spent, is spent wisely.

She encouraged the government to invest more, as there is a “leverage effect”: for every pound spent by government, institutions are able to leverage much more from external funders, such as charities and private donors.

The government needs to help scientists, but researchers also need to make themselves heard

While talking about the balance between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ sciences, Sarah Jackson referred to government efforts to fund applied science via the Catapult Centres set up by Innovate UK. The government funds these centres to promote collaboration between academics and industry, but Sarah warned that “the jam is being spread too thinly”, i.e. applied scientists not affiliated to the catapults may be missing out.

Adam Smith said the answer lies with the scientists: they need to organise themselves better so that relevant funders find them and take notice of their research.

Alun Evans issued pp4a plea for the oft-ignored ‘soft sciences’: “Intractable problems need an interdisciplinary approach,” he said. This means a focus on humanities and social sciences, as well as ‘pure’ sciences.

Political parties – and the public – should have access to the best independent science advice

There was some disappointment with the government’s engagement with the scientific community, but is that because they’re not getting the best advice? A question about independent advice for the Opposition in Parliament led Alun Evans to extol the virtues of transparency: “It’s good for democracy as a whole,” he said.

The panel agreed that the best possible scientific advice should not just be given to the government of the day, but should be shared as widely as possible, so that we can all see on what basis politicians are making their decisions.

The Science Minister has a job on his hands, but he shouldn’t be short of ideas!

The final question of the night asked the panellists to consider what they would do if they were Science Minister for the day. This question generated considerable passion from our panel of experts. So Jo Johnson, if you’re reading this, your priorities should include (but not be limited to):pp5

  • A commission investigating the career structure of scientists. As Adam Smith said, “science is too hierarchical and that’s a huge demoraliser for people”. What else is putting people off becoming scientists and what can the government do to counter those threats?
  • Address the funding situation for science in the UK. This would be Nicola Perrin’s top priority as Science Minister, while Sarah Jackson suggested setting a target that research and development spending should be at least 3% of GDP.
  • Improve connectivity in the North and Midlands to better link universities and research centres. Sarah believes this would be beneficial for the UK economy, education and research as a whole.

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