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.