CaSE all-party debate at the Royal Society #1

The call of pie prevented me from watching the whole of tonight’s all-party debating panel (David Willetts, Julian Huppert, Liam Byrne) at the Royal Society organized by CaSE, so for the moment these are inadequate and heavily pie-fed gleanings, both political and scientifical, which may be followed by a Proper Post at some point, like with correct grammar and paragraphs and all:

1. The panel like each other, more or less. Huppert thinks Willetts is one of the good guys on, e.g., immigration. Byrne was the most overtly political, at least at first. Natural, I suppose, because the other two have cause to know each other in a working relationship sense. Willetts seemed genuinely quite thrilled that Byrne had actually read DBIS’s Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth Report 2011.

2. The panel generally are strong on their brief, and strong in their advocacy of it. It’s too early to tell how Byrne will really perform in his newly acquired shadow brief and perhaps he had the benefit of being somewhat carried by the other two, but he held his own, and if you are utterly depressed at the state of government and the intellectual paucity of the people in it you could do worse than look to these three.

3. I did a little oven-side dance when Julian Huppert flew the flag for older people retraining in the sciences (the context being the skills shortage generally and a pertinent question from the audience about how to address this problem now, rather than through the medium of improved primary school science teaching which has a 20 year lead time). Not because I have the slightest intention of retraining in the sciences, mind you, but I am broadly retrained, if only from one social science to another, and much as it has benefited me personally I do think the culture is against it. Basically, if I had my way I would carry on learning things forever, and I think it’s a crying shame people are supposed to get more confident and complete as they get older, rather than more wide-eyed. I think a bit more wide-eyed would be good.

4. There was a moment of tremendous excitement, which had the Huppmeister jumping up and down in his chair, when it looked as if we might have cross-party consensus on ring-fenced science funding (in real terms?) 15 years into the future. Certainly Willetts was holding out some sweeteners about funding in the few years following 2015, and Byrne responded warmly. Not sure Willetts was quite as successful in humanising “George” [Osborne] to the audience though.

5. I need to blog about R&D tax credits and possibly change my header. You lucky people. They are, as Julian Huppert said, very generous indeed. I know them of old from working in the tax accountancy sector, and I never did get to do a tax calculation for an R&D tax credit, the number of groundbreaking research companies at large in North London being, at any one time, fairly small.

6. Several further points emerged in the questions which are points of relevance for all of academia, not just the sciences. The first of these was the importance of blue sky thinking. Is the current/emergent funding system conducive to it? I’ve read plenty of sound arguments that it isn’t. The incentives of the REF, certainly as they are known in the humanities, basically favour small annexations of new ground directly adjacent to old ground, and exploratory work that may not result in publication is riskier. The same is true apparently in the sciences. The panel could not offer any firm assurances that I could detect that this would be addressed, although all made the right noises. Huppert did concede that there was some risk inherent in successfully selling the short-term gains of science to the Treasury, in that it downplays the significance of long-term, tentative, exploratory research.

7. There was a brief segue into funding from the student end. Huppert feels the culture changed before his eyes as a student and then a Director of Studies when fees came in. I personally saw nothing of this, having been an undergradate from 1997 (the last year fees were not paid) and a postgrad from 2002, but I’ll take his word for it.

8. Another question with broader relevance to academia as a whole was the diversity problem. Some quite shocking stats came out here, including (if I heard correctly) the fact that 50% of state schools currently don’t have a single girl studying physics. Willetts had some even more telling stats about the proportion of girls getting high marks in science GSCEs who went on to study sciences at A-level, as against the (much higher) proportion of boys, which sadly I didn’t catch in detail and I will update when I find them. You can’t held wondering if Two-Brains won’t eventually be led further down the feminist path than his earlier history would have predicted, the more he considers stats like these and wonders why they are as they are.

And that was when the chicken and leek pie was ready. I will watch the second half of the debate though, because one thing came over to me loud and clear as I was watching and chatting to other watchers: this whole debate is far more advanced (and has, frankly, better people involved) in the sciences than it is in the humanities.

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