Government Science Minister Lord Drayson visited Oxford this week, meeting academics and students for a pilot ‘town hall’-style consultation.
The meeting, on Friday 23rd January in the plush new biochemistry building, was focussed on how the government could facilitate and stimulate scientific investigation with a view to developing intellectual-property–based industries which could help us through the current economic downturn.
Drayson is an unusual minister in that he does have a scientific background—having completed a PhD in robotics, he founded a highly successful spin-off company, PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, which was bought out for $800m in 2003. This grounding seems to have given him something of a prejudice towards business-based solutions, and a drive to generate more, and more profitable, spin-offs from UK university science departments.
I asked the Minister to outline what research had been done or had been commissioned into the economic and social benefits of scientific research and science outreach, in particular whether UK involvement in the European Space Agency’s manned spaceflight programme, for which he has expressed vocal support, represents good value for money as a tool to inspire schoolchildren. He said that an independent investigation into the merits of the manned programme had been commissioned, but conceded that he didn’t have the knowledge to assess the current ‘balance’ of research in different fields. He also believed that having a scientifically-trained Science Minister could not be relied upon, and therefore it was crucial that scientists, not ministers, should be in charge of allocating research funding.
Asked about the post–post-doc career bottleneck, Drayson replied that the fundamental problem of there being too few academic positions was systemic and insoluble. However, he wondered about the capabilities of entrepreneurship and business, saying that more could be done to encourage research careers in industry, or founding of spin-off companies by post-docs.
There was some concern about the difficulties of getting financial support for ‘high-risk’, blue-skies research in a climate where funding bodies are increasingly asking for applications to be listed on grant proposals. He asked the audience whether this was a general feeling. ‘Yes,’ we responded, in unison. Refreshingly free of political obfuscation, Drayson replied simply ‘I’ll look into it.’