UK Science Minister Addresses Critics on Twitter

In an attempt to save the sinking ship that is his current government, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has extensively shuffled his cabinet. As part of this the science (formerly the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills [DIUS]) has been merged with business (formerly the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [DBERR]) to form the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (DBIS). Paul Drayson will remain Minister of Science, but--in another twist--he'll now also be moonlighting as Minister of Defence Procurement (a position he has held previously).

Unfortunately, from what I've seen of Drayson previously, both shifts seem to fit very well with his interest in science largely as an applied endeavor. These are worrying developments for a variety of reasons. This gives science a decreased prominence in the current government, both by being combined with another department and now sharing its minister with an only tangentially related area. And, philosophically at least, so closely tying science and defense to one another sends an unsettling message.

Interestingly, though, when some of these concerns were raised recently on Twitter, Drayson responded, leading to a back-and-forth conversation that spanned about an hour from what I can tell. Some of the participants--PD Smith, Sofia Collins, and Andrew Maynard--have published pretty detailed accounts on their blogs. This is an interesting development, and it's certainly admirable of Drayson to engage in such open conversation, which is a positive step for democracy in general. Still, nothing he wrote seriously convinces me that either of these moves is a positive step for science, and I'm still pretty confident in my original reading of him--that he's generally fairly out of touch with basic science. Still, at the end of the conversation, he did agree to write an op-ed for Times Higher Education, so I'll stay tuned for that.

All of the political/policy issues aside, though, this conversation does illustrate the potential that a service like Twitter has to catalyze an interesting and important conversation that otherwise wouldn't take place. It's for its capacity as a new conduit of information and discussion that I set up a Twitter account not too long ago, and despite some initial skepticism, I've been pleasantly surprised by how well it has delivered.

Hat tip to Bora of A Blog Around the Clock

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The focus on applied research is also worrying because there are some problems that applied science cannot solve: those problems where we don't we don't understand enough.

A prime example was the "War on Cancer", declared in the US in 1961. Needless to say it hasn't been won yet. And, there is no way it could have been won with our pitiful 1961 understanding of biology. Trying to cure cancer when your intellectual tools didn't include gene sequencing is like trying to go to the moon without understanding rockets.

In a case like that, you simply waste money (many billions of dollars in the War on Cancer) and accomplish little. Until someone comes up with the critical ideas. It is easy to see -- in retrospect -- that if we had spent a few of those billions on basic research we might well have been further along.

Similarly, without rockets, you can try all you want with balloons, flocks of geese and giant cannons, and you won't get people to the moon. (Well, possibly the cannon might get them there in a squished state.) One could devote the entire world GDP towards training geese, but no matter how much you spend on this kind of applied research, no solution would appear.

Unless, of course, someone got the right idea, either by happenstance or because they were doing some under-the-table basic research.

People like to think that focussing research onto our current problems makes it efficient, but that's not necessarily true.