The Science Council Lecture On Government Science Policy
The Science Council’s first Sir Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture on 6th November 2007 was an excellent opportunity to learn the views of Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Science and Innovation.
Much of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Science (DIUS) Minister’s speech concerned science and society, and the enormous challenges that scientists and the wider community must now confront.
The inaugural Sir Gareth Roberts Lecture, delivered on the same day as the Queen’s Speech to Parliament, was our first opportunity to hear in any detail how science policy will be developed under Ian Pearson, the new Minister for Science.
The Minister, whose portfolio lies in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Science (DIUS), took three broad themes for his address:
* STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills – what expertise will be required from whom in taking science forward;
* Science and society – public understanding, engagement, enthusing young people about science; and
* How multi-disciplinary science can serve the UK and the world.
Unsurprisingly, these themes have many interconnections.
It’s now widely accepted that there must be involvement in science from as wide a range of people as possible. This was spelt out in Sir Gareth Robert’s 2003 review, SET for Success.
Sir Gareth’s recommendations, all accepted and now again endorsed by the Government, included providing additional resources for schools, universities and research bodies, and the promotion of school-business links. The review led to an increase in the stipend paid to PhD students, and initiatives to encourage women and young people to consider a career in science.
To this the Minister now added a renewed emphasis on the global context and on the national initiative, STEMNET, which is currently on course to achieve its 18,000th Science and Engineering Ambassador, drawing one million children into the STEM agenda.
Science and society
The last twenty years having seen a revolution in e-technologies, Ian Pearson suggested, the next twenty will see vast changes in the bio-sciences. And in these transitions ethical and other social issues will come even more to the fore. This is why the work of Sir David King, Government Chief Scientist, on the Universal Ethical Code for Scientists is so important.
‘Scientists may have discovered [the science],’ said the Minister, ‘but they cannot operate in a vacuum. They are part of the society in which they and the outcomes of their research operate. We need to engage at an early stage with our publics and we need to recognise that there will be valid concerns and genuine ethical dilemmas in certain areas of research.’
To date, he suggested, the record on public engagement is ‘checkered’. Whilst nuclear energy and genetic modification, for instance, have ‘not been handled well’, engagement with the public in the UK on stem cell research and nanotechnology has been more positive.
In today’s ‘citizen-centric’ world the value of public-science two way communication is, we were told, vital. This is why the Beacons for Public Engagement programme of university-based centres to help ‘support, recognise, reward and build capacity for public engagement work’ will be launched in January.
‘Refreshing the Vision and Strategy’ was Ian Pearson’s theme. He referred to the ten year Science and Innovation Investment Framework to 2014 in the context of strong and effective external communication of science. Taking this forward, a mapping exercise has just been completed to identify the work being undertaken under the ‘science and society’ banner.
The Minister’s aim, he told us, was to achieve ‘A Society that is excited about science, values its importance to our economic and social well-being, feels confident in its use, and supports a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce.’
Facing challenges in the UK and globally
Ian Pearson’s final theme concerned the growing importance of cross-disciplinary research. Researchers no longer work within ‘silos’ in their narrow fields, needing rather to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. This kind of work is encouraged by initiatives such as the Medical Research Council‘s Discipline Hopping Grants.
Such an approach combines theory, computer modelling and experimental science and can be used to tackle issues as diverse as energy, living with environmental change, global security, ageing, nanoscience and the digital economy. It is about bringing together the insights of scientists natural and social across the spectrum of human experience.
In launching the debate, the Minister told us, he sought to open up the Government’s policy making process to the wider scientific community. This is surely a call to engagement which many will warmly welcome.