UK science research too tied to economic returns? or, be careful what you wish for

Back in January and February I blogged that science was being seen as key to economic recovery: MPs, including the PM, said so. I was pretty excited about that. Any excuse for more science funding is a good thing.

Well, maybe I should have been more cautious. Perhaps the linking of science and money has gone too far.

I blogged in May about a Guardian article that pointed out that researchers applying for grants must quantify the economic returns of their research. That was worrisome: science needs funding, sure, but it can’t always predict what it’s going to produce.

It’s getting worse. After the political struggle of recent weeks Gordon Brown effected some cabinet reshuffles. One of those shuffles means that theDepartment for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) – a UK organisation I’ve blogged about before and that I think a lot of – is no more. It’s been merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform to form the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, headed by Peter Mandelson.

The pendulum has swung too far, I think. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (how many committees are there, anyway?)thinks so, too. Believing science can aid our economic recovery is one thing; making it inseparable from realising profit is quite another.

DIUS on Twitter

If you’re interested in what the UK government is doing to support science, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – which I’ve blogged about before – has a Twitter presence.

Yesterday, for instance, I’ve learned that Lord Drayson – the Minister of State for Science – is stopping off at ACAL Energy on his way to one of the UK road-trip cabinet meetings. ACAL produce Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology.

Part of DIUS’s mission statement is to

[work] with partners from the commercial, public and voluntary sectors to:

  • Accelerate the commercial exploitation of creativity and knowledge, through innovation and research, to create wealth, grow the economy, build successful businesses and improve quality of life.
  • Improve the skills of the population throughout their working lives to create a workforce capable of sustaining economic competitiveness, and enable individuals to thrive in the global economy.
  • Build social and community cohesion through improved social justice, civic participation and economic opportunity by raising aspirations and broadening participation, progression and achievement in learning and skills.
  • Pursue global excellence in research and knowledge, promote the benefits of science in society, and deliver science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills in line with employer demand.
  • Strengthen the capacity, quality and reputation of the Further and Higher Education systems and institutions to support national economic and social needs.
  • Encourage better use of science in Government, foster public service innovation, and support other Government objectives which depend on the DIUS expertise and remit.

It seems to me that social media is likely to provide a better means for achieving some of those public-engagement goals than has been possible in the past. So Twitter on!

British space agency proposes mission to study Moon interior through dart probes

From the UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills:

A possible UK-led Moon mission involving ‘penetrator’ darts that would impact into the Moon’s surface will be the focus of a technical study to ascertain its feasibility, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) announced today (5 December 2008).

Known as MoonLITE (Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment), the unmanned mission aims to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon and deploy four penetrators to deliver scientific instruments below the surface of the Moon.

The satellite orbiter would then act as a telecommunications station between the surface network and the Earth, relaying information to the Earth during the penetrators’ one year life on the strength and frequency of Moonquakes and the thickness of the crust and core. It might also determine whether organic material or water is present in the polar regions.

NASA will support the study in order to establish its potential contribution to the science and technology of the mission.

Okay, with recent Mars missions, the Moon may not seem so cool anymore. But the idea of a satellite firing giant space darts into it is WAY cool.