Drayson Debate

This page gets you up to speed on the debate between myself and Science Minister Lord Drayson that culminated in Blue Skies Ahead? The Future of UK Science at the Wellcome Collection in London on the 30th November 2009.

Back in June 2009, the current UK government had a cabinet re-shuffle. One of the consequences of this re-shuffle was that Lord Drayson became simultaneously Minister of State for Science and Minister of State for Defence.

It struck me that this was perhaps an appointment that needed to be questioned, not on the grounds of Drayson’s abilities, but firstly on the matter of science being so closely politically twinned with defence, but moreover, science having only a part-time minister.

Professor Brian Cox, Myself and Lord Drayson at Blue Skies Ahead? debate at Wellcome Collection

To this end I asked the question on social networking site Twitter:

“Anyone else worried that science and defence are now inextricably politically linked? with @lorddrayson doing both jobs!?”

From there several of my colleagues joined a discussion which eventually drew in Lord Drayson himself. Dr Stuart Lowe, an astronomer at The University of Manchester, has kindly aggregated the debate so you can see a tweet by tweet account of what went on.

During this debate UK magazine Times Higher Education (THE) asked Lord Drayson via Twitter whether he would be interested in penning an opinion piece in their pages justifying his position and countering our concerns. He duly obliged and you can read his article here.

Having sparked the debate in the first place I was anxious that my objections to subsequent policy announcements regarding pure science research were also put to the readers of THE. I sent a speculative tweet to the magazine and they gave me 700 words to argue my corner the following week.

Following the publication of that piece Lord Drayson got in touch with me, again via Twitter, and this is what he had to say:

@skyponderer Fair & good points u make. How do we continue the conversation now? Want to invite me to a live debate? Or stay tweeting?

How could I refuse? So we set about organising the debate. I was asked to select a panel of ‘up-and-coming’ scientists and science professionals for the live event. After much deliberation I settled on film-maker and science teacher Alom Shaha, particle physicist Suzie Sheehy and astrobiologist Dr Lewis Dartnell to join me on the panel. It was agreed that physicist, science presenter and former rock star Prof. Brian Cox would chair proceedings.

The evening itself was eventful with a very lively and sometimes heated discussion between Lord Drayson, the other panelists and members of the audience. The debate was dominated by talk of the STFC funding crisis and the precise meaning of the word “impact” in the proposed new Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The full debate was webcast by Times Higher Education and is available to watch online for 6 months after the debate. For what the blogosphere thought of proceedings see this account from New Scientist Editor Roger Highfield.

The level of discussion generated from this debate has been very satisfying with over 1,000 tweets on the subject and it continues under the hashtag #sciblue on Twitter.

Images © BISGOVUK 2009