Government Science Minister engages debate on twitter

Some people love twitter, some think it’s a load of pointless old nonsense. I confess, I’ve got into it and think it’s very handy (my feed is @imascientist, if you’re interested). But this afternoon I’ve seen about the best thing I’ve ever seen on it.

Various sciencey type people had been expressing their worries about the new cabinet arrangements, specifically that Lord Drayson was now joint Minister for Science and Minister for Defence Procurement.

Some people felt that science wasn’t being taken seriously enough, with only ‘half a minister’. Some people were concerned by the ‘synergy’ of science and defence technology. Pretty straightforward gossip about the situation, which in other circumstances might have been around the watercooler and gone no further…

But then something amazing happened. Lord Drayson sent the following message in his twitter feed:-

“Please explain specifically what it is you are worried about. I’m listening…”

PD_Smith, in particular, took up the baton, and Lord Drayson actually engaged in a conversation about it! I’ve editted together most of the conversation below, so those who weren’t watching it can see it. I’ve not included everything, and I’ve not put things in strictly chronological order, where it would be confusing (sometimes it seemed obvious that delays meant that remarks which should go together were separated). Apologies to people I’ve missed out and if I’ve changed the sense of what anyone meant.

lorddrayson: @joergheber Please explain specifically what it is you are worried about. I’m listening… @rowanNS @skyponderer @PD_Smith
PD_Smith: @lorddrayson 1. why does Science not deserve its own minister? 2. Are there not ethical issues re unifying sci + military under 1 minister?
skyponderer: @lorddrayson Justify why we need a shared role Don’t we have enough talent to go round that we need to spread it thinly @ science’s expense?
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith In my view the more the sci minister is connected to wider roles in govt the more influence science has to the whole agenda
2020science: @skyponderer One up to @lorddrayson I think 🙂 Round two…
PD_Smith: @lorddrayson The logic of that is that you’ll soon be taking on more portfolios? Sounds to me like a reduction in the import of sci.
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith Science deserves a minister at the cabinet table. Thats key. Tick. Sci desrves a cabinet committee. Thats key too. Tick.
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith But, many ministers have dual roles.. it really helps departments work together better. Silos in whitehall are not helpful.
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith Many science issues are cross-departmental. Take GMES as an example. MOD / DECC / BERR / DIUS all had a view on earth observation
2020science: @lorddrayson Dedication to strategic value of science & technology encouraging. But also need to translate intentions into action.
PD_Smith: @lorddrayson And what about combining sci + defence procurement? Does it send out the right message in an age of nuclear proliferation?
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith Re ethical issues. You have a point. I have to be absolutely clear on the separation between the 2 roles. Civil service r key.
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith However, many science breakthroughs originated in defence research: ultrasound, radar to mention 2
joergheber: @lorddrayson worried abt role of science and thinking behind reorg. Why talk of ring fence? Are these threats to budget? Sounds defensive?
imascientist: @lorddrayson @PD_Smith But is there a risk sci gets ‘pulled’ in a military direction? Potential crossovers w othr depts instead, e.g. health
PD_Smith: .@lorddrayson That’s undeniable. But science should, and can be, about so much more than military hardware.
PD_Smith: @lorddrayson I’m v glad to hear you accept there has to be separation. But I still say it sends out a mixed message to the rest of the world
alicebell: @lorddrayson. Er, isn’t that the point? People aren’t sure that science and defence are the departments they want working together
skyponderer: @lorddrayson Does science not have enough value on its own to be at heart of govt, why does it have to piggy-back in on defence’s shoulders?
lorddrayson: @skyponderer Its not at science’s expense- v. imp to be integrated into heart of govt- gives mores influence & impact 2 sci agenda
lorddrayson: @PD_Smith I agree. Defence is but a small part of the whole. “Science so what; So everything”….will continue from BIS… @sciencesowhat
dr_david_w: @lorddrayson @PD_Smith @skyponderer Gordon Brown wanted a debate on the role of science in service of humanity. His actions speak volumes.
lorddrayson: @imascientist the spinoffs in health are key – which is why I head the Office for Life Sciences too.
imascientist: @lorddrayson But as @alicebell suggests, it seems to send an odd message – as if defence apps are the *main point* of science.
lorddrayson: @imascientist @alicebell Not the main point. Just one of many, many , applications of sci. MoD R&D budget is one of the largest tho…
PD_Smith: Intrigued to hear that @lorddrayson heads the Office for Life Sciences & Defence Procurement. That seems almost oxymoronic…
joergheber: @lorddrayson yet Andy Grove’s quote works both ways as we can see 🙂 Deeds speak louder than words so look forward to the former. Good luck!
lorddrayson: I really believe science agenda is stronger now in govt than ever. Its up to me to prove it though in the future. @tim_harper @joergheber
joergheber: @tim_harper @lorddrayson that’s exactly my concern- science seems a fragile commodity in the scheme of gov. Shouldn’t be on the defensive!
lorddrayson: @joergheber Pure research is safe.. read my speech at FST
2020science: @lorddrayson Internal multiple roles for ministers seems pragmatic. But it does lead to mixed/confusing messages to those outside govt.
skyponderer: @lorddrayson Hats off for the chance for dialogue. Very impressed we can all chat to the Minister for Science about such key issues
imascientist: @lorddrayson I don’t want to sound like we’re all ganging up on you. Kudos for discussing it!
imascientist: @lorddrayson Maybe I’m an old hippy, but I try to engage kids in science, hoping they’ll cure cancer or save planet. Weapons, not so much…
PD_Smith: @lorddrayson @imascientist @alicebell Indeed – what would Michael Foot think of that? Great pity…
timeshighered: @lorddrayson – Your new role seems to be getting a few queries…would you like to write an opinion article for us defending your new brief?
lorddrayson: @timeshighered Delighted… thanks for the offer. Lets do it.
PD_Smith: I have to say, chatting w/ the Minister for Sci & Defence Procurement is one of the most intriguing Twitter experiences I have had to date.

I don’t think that Lord Drayson has completely answered his critics, but I think it’s extremely admirable that he entered the conversation and was so game about it. And I’m truly impressed at such government openness. Is this the first time that a serving government minister has debated his role and the organisation of government, with random interested parties, on twitter?

It ends with a cheeky request for Lord Drayson to write an article for the Times Higher Education supplement, which he agrees to. So you can read all about it there soon!

Posted on June 9, 2009 by in Scientists. Tagged , , , . 2 Comments.

2 Responses to Government Science Minister engages debate on twitter

  1. Alice says:

    Personally, I think we should be careful of congratulating *too much* for Drayson for engaging.

    He’s still spinning, and broadcasting that spin via twitter, even if he’s replying to individuals. Plus a lot of the people he was responding to were science journos. It wasn’t THAT different from an interview for local radio or a specialist podcast – something politicians do all the time.

    Plus, its on twitter, arguably this allowed him to keep the complexity of the debate down to nothing more than 140 characters.

    Anyway, I agree with you that it was an amazing thing in many ways, but we should be careful of celebrating Drayson’s openness too much. (but I’m clearly a cynical old hag)

  2. Katie says:

    Thanks so much for putting this all together there were the odd few bits I had missed there.

    I will refrain from raining on the parade by releasing the cynical rant in the back of my mind, but yes, I guess on one level I was impressed also!

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