Scientists on tap

November 9, 2009

I have been worrying about the Professor Nutt story, for personal reasons. For those who don’t know, this business is about the science adviser fired by the Home Office for criticising the government in public. Of course the gut instinct of most of our scientist colleagues will be to side with the Prof – Science versus the Barbarians ! Man the Barricades ! I am not so sure . Its the Government’s job to govern, and the Adviser’s job to advise. I wouldn’t quite go with the classic Winston Churchill quote – scientists should be on tap, not on top – but a little humility is due. On the other hand, the current government can be a tad brutish, as we know. It all depends what Nutt actually said, which I haven’t found out.

This is on my mind because I am about to take the Kings Shilling. As of next year yours truly is becoming chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel. Early Warning. Do not expect the inside dope. Do not ask. I will still be free to talk of matters Ess-Tee-Eff-ical, but anything connected with my newly privileged position will be off limits. STFC have asked me to help them, and that is what I will do.

Meanwhile, there is a renewed sensitivity to public comment in RCUK-land.  Upstairs of STFC they were very concerned about the Sunday Times story a few weeks back, that reported that STFC were seriously considering leaving CERN. The Sunday Times was able to write a somewhat alarmist story because they got a quote. This actually just stated the obvious – well, we will have to consider every option, Brian – but coming from a senior STFC staff member, whose blushes I shall spare, it sounded like a secret policy had been uncovered.  Sooo…. I understand that as a result new guidelines are being issued. Staff can freely comment on uncontentious things – like their own exciting science – but should refrain from things that might sound like a policy statement. Unless, presumably, it really is a policy statement. Quite right too. If I was in charge of RCUK I would I do much the same thing.

I just hope the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater…