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What did we learn from the Commons Committee on Science and Technology?

By Jon Agar, on 3 February 2010

The MSc Science, Governance and the Public option students visited the Houses of Parliament (or rather Portcullis House) to witness the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology in action.

The topic of the day was ‘The impact of spending cuts on science and scientific research’ and being quizzed were engineer and director of the Diamond Light facility Lord Broers, media star physicist Professor Brian Cox, director of the active lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering Nick Dusic, ex-Oxford Instruments man and Vice-President of the Royal Society Sir Peter Williams, one of the chiefs of the MRC (Dr Tony Peatfield) and the heads of Technology Strategy Board (Iain Gray), STFC (Professor Michael Sterling), and Research Councils UK (Professor Alan Thorpe). 

So what was learned? Here’s a few memorable moments.

  • The £600 million cut in the pre-budget report came as a complete surprise to the head of the Research Councils
  • Most of the heated discussion was about whether “impact” could or should be used to decide between research projects
  • Brian Cox candidly said that impact can’t be measured, and when pushed to rate impact of research proposals the result was arbitrary and ‘damaging’
  • Sterling, chair of the research council that funds UK big science, considers that impact is only relevant ‘at the margins’
  • Lord Broers thinks that the best science in the past was done by scientists who have had an ‘interest in impact’. He cited Townes and the maser and Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen and the transistor as evidence
  • Cox thought this was anecdotal. He offered Tim Berners-Lee and the web as counter-evidence – the inventor of the web had no thought of impact. He clearly had been watching Aleks Krotoski’s BBC4 doc Virtual Revolution earlier in the week
  • The head of the Research Councils UK holds that the biggest advantage of encouraging early and ‘upfront’ statements of impact is that it encourages a certain mindset among researchers. In other words, to go Foucauldian on you for a second, impact is about governmentality. (There’s a social research paper in that insight… one with impact… I’m not joking…)   
  • There’s also a paper to be written about how past science administrations have coped in recessions. No-one asked could quite remember…
  • It was interesting to see history of science being mobilised to support contemporary policy arguments. It was also clear, as Dusic said, that proper research could inform further debate
  • Cox has done his homework. In particular he cited the findings of social science – specifically the SPRU science policy studies of Ben Martin and Ammon Salter – to defend the support of basic science
  • Understandably all the panellists resisted the invitation to name fields or projects that might be at the bottom of the priority lists.
  • Peter Williams of the Royal Society remained practically mute when pushed for advice about how to reform the STFC or how to prioritise research. The Royal Society, one suspects, prefers to lobby in private rather than offer its conclusions to a committee of public account
  • The Haldane Principle lives (so says the head of RCUK)
  • The chair of the Committee, the otherwise excellent Phil Willis, had the cheek to ask Brian Cox (ex-Defence: Research Engineering And Mathematics) whether he thought ‘things could only get better’. groans and embarassment followed.

One Response to “What did we learn from the Commons Committee on Science and Technology?”

  • 1
    Mat wrote on 5 February 2010:

    My recollection is that it was Evan Harris who asked whether ‘things could only get better’. More his style.

    I thought the discussion of impacts was very interesting too. It sounded to me like Harris was very dubious about their introduction. It may have been significant that Lord Broers – who liked impacts – is an engineer; part of a engineer’s problem solving mindset.