A tale of two science ministers

This year’s Reith Lecturer is the current President of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, who was chosen as part of the BBC’s year of science and the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary. The lectures are being recorded across the country this month, ready for broadcast in the first week of June. I’ve been to both the London recordings. More significantly, so has the Science Minister. However, as these recordings were six days apart, the science minister in question has been an entirely different man: first Paul Drayson, now David Willets. I play a bit of compare and contrast over at the Times’ science blog (as this is now paywalled, I’ve pasted it below).

A thread I didn’t pick up on there is the mention (by Rees and repeated by Willets) of the importance of big science to inspire the young. As I’ve said before, I find statements like this a bit problematic. There is loads of anecdotal evidence to suggest that projects like Apollo inspired people to go into scientific careers. I wouldn’t deny that. But, as someone who researches, teaches and generally chats about children and science for a living, I hear almost as many anecdotes to the contrary, or at least citing other inspirations. These anecdotes seem to be articulated slightly less publicly, sometimes even whispered, but they are no less significant.

I’d love someone to look at this properly. To systematically investigate today‘s children about what inspires them in science and take their interests and disinterests seriously.

Big science projects are exceedingly expensive. That’s part of the point. I don’t deny their scientific value (or at least I’m not qualified to do so) but in such a period of “tough times” for science funding I’m not sure a loose claim to inspiring the young is enough. It sounds good but, to me, lacks depth. We might even say it’s rather pointless, seeing at the new government has kept the old one’s division of education and science. Unless Gove wants to fund the LHC? It seems like an all too easy rhetorical appeal to wonder and the assumed good and importance of children. Again, I’m not necessarily denying that science is wonderful or saying that children aren’t important (though I do make my students try to think through these ideas, at least as an intellectual exercise), but let’s investigate the issue before building policy on it.

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This year’s Reith Lecturer is the current President of the Royal Society, Professor Martin Rees, who was chosen as part of the BBC’s year of science and the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary. The lectures are being recorded across the country this month, ready for broadcast in the first week of June. I’ve been to both the London recordings. More significantly, so has the Science Minister. However, as these recordings were six days apart, the science minister in question has been an entirely different man.

Last Tuesday was the first lecture in the series, “Science and the Citizen”, recorded at Broadcasting House. Last Tuesday, you might remember, was quite a day in UK politics. We arrived at the BBC to rumours and uncertainty over coalition negotiations, and left to news that David Cameron was now our new Prime Minister.

During the election campaign, there had been some gossip on the apparent disappearance of the Labour Science Minister, Lord Drayson. It had been suggested he was keeping his head down, hoping to stay on in his post, whoever won. So it was with interest that I spotted Drayson in the audience at Broadcasting House. Surely he’d be in Westminster if he wanted a post in the new government? Indeed, he posted on Twitter later that attending the lecture has been his last event as Science Minister, “a perfect ending”.

There was a fair bit of debate over who might be the next Science Minister in the pub that evening. A few days later, we knew the answer: not Afriyie, Teather, Clark or Drayson, but “two brains” Willetts.

Many eyes were on David Willetts at the Royal Society last night, where he was in the audience for the third Reith lecture, entitled “What we’ll never know”. The topic of funding came up in questions and the BBC team were quick to get a roaming microphone over to him. Willetts calmly responded that “everyone understands times are getting tougher” before moving to a more optimistic stance, asking us to remember Thatcher’s line on the expense of the Large Hadron Collider: “yes, but isn’t it interesting?”.

Sue Lawley very smoothly quipped back: “So, David Willetts, does this government find science ‘interesting’?” Willetts took a moment to pause before answering, again very calmly. As people often say of Willetts, he sounded thoughtful. He reiterated a point made by Rees about the importance of inspiring young people with big science. He then credited Lord Rees for making a very good case before repeating, somewhat dryly, “times are tough”.

Oh, how the audience, largely made up of scientists, laughed. Hollowly. The general air of incredulity flowed neatly on, as this little exchanged was quickly followed by a question from Rupert Sheldrake. It all felt very 1980s.

On the bus home I compared “Science and the Citizen”, “What we’ll never know”, and how the two ministers had worked the two events. Drayson using Twitter to publicly thank the Reith lectures, soon followed by another comment thanking everyone in the science community for their advice, support and criticism. Willetts calmly repeating comments about tough times.

The Times Higher have been running a campaign to get Willetts on Twitter, asking their followers for reasons why the new minister should sign up. Lord Drayson joined in: “So I can ask him difficult questions DIRECTLY like @DrEvanHarris & #scivote used to ask me!”.

This is, undoubtedly, largely the difference between a minister leaving and another coming into a very difficult job. Physics funding in particular remaining an especially tricky issue. Still, it will interesting to see how Willetts chooses to engage with the scientific community, especially as Drayson’s time in office as been a period where UK science seems to have become increasingly politicised.

One thought on “A tale of two science ministers

  1. greekgirlinlondon

    If I understand correctly (I was not at the lecture nor I know a lot on the subject) such a strategy would only work for those young people on the edge, i.e. who are debating to go into STEM vs another alternative. If young people are interested in STEM, big science projects are not going to make them any more interested. If young people are not interested in STEM, I doubt they will be persuaded by these massive, complicated projects (I work for one of them coming from a very different field and even I am finding hard to undestand what is going on). So I think that if they are going to make a policy that used big projects to inspire young people, they are actually targeting an even smaller percentage of young people, those who are trying to choose if they want a STEM career or not.

    Reply

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