The Scientific Activist

Last Friday the British Minister of Science, Paul Drayson, visited the science area of Oxford University to give a short speech and take questions. The audience was a fairly random assortment of a couple of hundred academics and students, mostly from the sciences. I was invited to fill one of ten graduate student slots granted to the Department of Biochemistry. It was a nice gesture by Drayson, and I think he was legitimately interested in hearing from scientists. Based on what I witnessed, though, I hope that he took some of it in.

Drayson spoke and took questions about his role and the place of science general in Gordon Brown’s government, about current budgetary constraints, about scientific outreach, and about some specific aspects of scientific and medical training. Mostly, though, he spoke about entrepreneurship. I suppose that this shouldn’t be a major surprise, given that Drayson’s own background is mostly in business. However, it was striking–and even off-putting–just how singlemindedly he pushed his views on the importance of commercializing science. While I fully see the merit of commercializing some research, particularly in order to spur certain innovations, such endeavors should not be confused with the process of scientific discovery. While commercialization is certainly not incompatible with the basic fabric of scientific inquiry, the two are far from synonymous. Very far.

Disappointingly for the top science policy official in the UK government, Drayson does not have a background in basic science, although he does have some science-related experience. His education was in the applied sciences–earning a BSc in production engineering and a PhD in robotics from Aston University in 1985. Since then Drayson has been in the private sector, part of that time as the founder and chief executive of a biotech company, and he has been in his current government post since October 2008. He does not have what I would call the ideal background for a top science official, but he does have somewhere to start from. I’m not sure that he’s done his homework, though.

Drayson came across not so much as someone without a respect for basic science, but more as someone who just didn’t understand it. At the very least, he was not conversant in the issues facing basic scientists in the UK and elsewhere. For example, one Oxford professor expressed a concern that the funding climate is becoming more translational, meaning that funding bodies are pushing more and more for applied research. He pointed out that this is hurting funding for basic research, particularly high-risk studies, and he asked Drayson what he thought about this. Drayson said (rightfully) that “the point of studying science is studying things that are unknown” and that he would be worried if there is a lack of support for basic science. However, he didn’t seem sold on this idea, and he skeptically asked the audience whether the view expressed by this professor was a widely-held one. Not surprisingly, the response from the audience came in unison and was a resounding and forceful “Yes!” At this moment, the look on Drayson’s face was one of genuine surprise, and he said that he would look into this. The discussion was then cut short to take a relatively petty question from someone in the business school.

Drayson’s lack of familiarity with the issues facing scientists was displeasing, but it was probably not as disconcerting as the way he responded to a question from a postdoc about the lack availability of academic jobs compared to the number of highly-trained postocs seeking them. This is a major issue facing the scientific community, and its causes stretch from a general lack of funding, to unbalanced funding for early career versus late career positions, to the boom/bust cyclic political nature of scientific funding, to structural aspects of how we do science. Clearly this is a complex problem, and one that demands deep knowledge, innovative thinking, and some tough decisions. Not so, though, according to Drayson. Instead, he very confidently suggested that more scientists should just become entrepreneurs, or should at least go into industry. He pointed out that he “became an entrepreneur straight from [his] PhD.” Surely everyone else can just do the same.

Now, I haven’t considered industry jobs for myself, but my impression is not that there is such a great availability of positions, at least not as great as there used to be. This is certainly true in my field at least. Still, I’ll grant Drayson that industry jobs are surely still more prevalent than tenure-track academic jobs right now. However, I don’t know what sort of market there is out there right now for scientific “entrepreneurs”. At the very least, the demand for this niche endeavor is most certainly not more than the demand for career academic scientists, and I highly doubt that pushing more people into entrepreneurship would do anything to alleviate the overabundance of highly-trained scientists struggling to find academic jobs… especially not in the current economic climate. That’s not even taking into account the fact that entrepreneurship is often something that stems from work done in conjunction with another more stable position and not something that someone can generally just go out and do on their own.

Please don’t get me wrong, though: these young scientists struggling to land permanent academic positions should certainly be encouraged to broaden their horizons. But, if this is the best that the UK’s top science policy official can come up with to address a very pressing and complex problem, science in the UK might be in a little bit of trouble.

Comments

  1. #1 guthrie
    January 26, 2009

    I am afraid that you confirm my prejudices precisely. I left uni 8 years ago now, and I could tell back in the 90′s that there was too much concentration on commercialisation, not basic research. As far as I am concerned, universities are there to do basic research, things that might lead toa breakthrough, research that is too risky for private companies to take on, and research that is judged of immediate public interest.

    Not be cheap labour for companies too stingy to do their own research. But that is the impression I get, even from the outside.
    Also, claiming that more PhDs should simply become entrepreneurs misses the point that (I know, I know, I’m being a bit stereotypical) the reason many people do PhD’s is not because they want to go out and earn lots of money, but because they want to advance the science in topics that really interest them. The skills and drive to do that are in most cases I think rather different from those necessary to become an entrepreneur. It is simply better for the PhDs to do their research, and business minded people to come along later, trying to conflate them is madness.

  2. #2 Alex
    January 26, 2009

    It’s worrying Paul Drayson has a shallow understanding of the scientific endeavour. It’s a result of Labour’s desire to force avenues of public expenditure into a crude and inappropriate business model – as they’re currently doing to healthcare. Combined with the physics budget disaster, I think very little of their science policy.

  3. #3 MikeB
    January 26, 2009

    A New Labour politician who seemingly has little idea of the real world in which the rest of us live – unsettling, certainly, but unfortunately unsurprising.

  4. #4 Matt Heath
    January 27, 2009

    His lack of experience in basic science is normal for a UK minister though; in fact it’s his personal involvement with any part of his brief that is unusual. British ministers are overwhelming career politicians and the assumption is always that technical or specific knowledge of the subject is the job of the civil service.

    As Jim had it in Yes, Minister “Ministers aren’t supposed to know anything”.

  5. #5 guthrie
    January 27, 2009

    Matt- add in the last 20 years of outsourcing expertise and technical knowledge to the private sector and you get a bit of a mess.

  6. #6 Greg Kochanski
    February 10, 2009

    The odd thing is that curiosity-driven research is just the flip side of applied research. In the one, the solution comes first and then one has to scrounge around for something to use it on. In the other, the use is obvious, but one has to scrounge around for a way to solve it.

    It always annoys me why people think one is “practical” and the other “impractical”.

  7. #7 Greg Kochanski
    July 6, 2009

    Since May, all the research councils of the UK have required an economic impact statement on all research proposals. Even in the humanities.

    This is a bad idea from many viewpoints. First of all, it will push people away from basic research.

    Second, it — amazingly — demands that you predict what the economic impact of your research will be, before you even do it.