Join the blue skies debate | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

Join the blue skies debate

Pete Wilton

Yesterday what started out as an exchange on Twitter blossomed into a full scale debate on the future for basic and curiosity-driven research.

The debate, Blue skies ahead?, was organised by THE and featured a panel including Science Minister Lord Drayson, Suzie Sheehy from Oxford University's Department of Physics, Colin Stuart, Alom Shaha, and Lewis Dartnell, with Brian Cox chairing the lively discussion.

One of the main topics was the new Research Excellence Framework (REF) with its emphasis on putting a greater emphasis on the 'impact' of proposed research projects.

Suzie said: 'Meeting Lord Drayson again was a good experience, and I commend his interaction with real scientists through forums such as Twitter and the blue skies debate.'

'It was certainly an intense experience for me to have to speak directly after Lord Drayson initially, particularly as most of the points I had prepared were very well addressed in his opening remarks. It certainly made me think on my feet!'

She cites the effect on scientific output when it is assessed with regards to impact as the most interesting point raised during the debate. This morning physicist Brian Cox commented on his Twitter stream about the difficulties of measuring 'impact' in any meaningful way.

Asked about the questions she wished had come up, but didn't, Suzie told me:

'The first point I wish had been raised was my concern that making the outlook of scientific research 'impact' focused brings up the issue of how much scientists earn. I was offered a job straight out of undergraduate that would have paid me more than I will earn in research science for possibly the next 10 years.'

'We don't do science for money, we do it because it is interesting and we think it is important. Shifting the focus to 'impact' may be the final straw for many good scientists who may either leave the field, or leave the country to 'greener pastures'.

'It would have also been good to discuss the issues of under-represented groups in science, particularly the issues of women in physics and the possibility of programs to support more flexible working arrangements such as part-time postdoctoral fellowships.'