PD Smith

The Man from the Ministry

09 June 2009 | Writing & Poetry | 16 comments

Twitter can be seriously distracting, especially when the Minister of Science keeps sending you tweets.

Yesterday I saw a comment from science writer and broadcaster Colin Stuart (@skyponderer on Twitter):

"Anyone else worried that science and defence are now inextricably politically linked? with @lorddrayson doing both jobs!?"

Yes (I thought) that does sound worrying and I tweeted it on my page too. Within forty minutes Lord Paul Drayson himself replied (to me, note, not Colin - perhaps the Science Minister doesn't quite get Twitter?).

"What are you worried about?" he asked me.

I have to admit I was surprised. Actually that's a serious understatement. I sat in front of the screen for a few minutes wondering if I was seeing things. Don't Her Majesty's ministers of state have more urgent matters to attend to than dealing with comments on Twitter by authors? Perhaps it was a practical joke? A fake Lord perhaps?

But no, it really was Lord Drayson - Twitter bio “Father of 5, Minister For Science and Innovation, Labour peer, car nut: http://www.draysonracing.com/". Yes, that's him.

So I replied: "You shd ask @skyponderer - but history shows we shd all be concerned abt links between sci & defence." (Excuse the abbreviations but you only get 140 characters on Twitter.)

Then Colin joined in (no doubt justifiably peeved that the minister was ignoring him): "I agree with @PD_Smith, but I am also disappointed that science is undervalued enough not to need a full time minister...".

At the same time, other people began to contribute equally useful comments - @DrLucyRogers, @dr_david_w, @joergheber, @imascientist etc. But thereafter, silence - at least until this afternoon, when the Minister replied. Except he's not just "one" minister, but two.

Lord Drayson is now (thanks to Gordon Brown's latest Cabinet reshuffle) two ministers in one - he is both Science Minister and (reverting to a former role) Minister for Defence Procurement. Hence Colin's consternation, which I share.

This afternoon the two-in-one Minister again asked what was worrying us. I got my response in first (I should have been writing a review but was Twittering instead):

@PD_Smith: "1. why does Science not deserve its own minister? 2. Are there not ethical issues re unifying sci + military under 1 minister?"

This time @lorddrayson answered immediately: "In my view the more the sci minister is connected to wider roles in govt the more influence science has to the whole agenda."

@PD_Smith (two tweets in a row this time): "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. And what about combining sci + defence procurement? Does it send out the right message in an age of nuclear proliferation?"

In reply, the Noble Lord fired off five tweets in quick succession: "Science deserves a minister at the cabinet table. Thats key. Tick. Sci desrves a cabinet committee. Thats key too. Tick."

"But, many ministers have dual roles.. it really helps departments work together better. Silos in whitehall are not helpful."

"Many science issues are cross-departmental. Take GMES as an example. MOD / DECC / BERR / DIUS all had a view on earth observation"

"Re ethical issues. You have a point. I have to be absolutely clear on the separation between the 2 roles. Civil service r key."

I was pleased to have got him to at least concede that there was an ethical issue involved here (although also slightly confused by the idea that there might be silos in Whitehall. Nuclear bunkers I'd heard about, but missile silos?).

@PD_Smith: "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."

Side-stepping that, @lorddrayson continued: "However, many science breakthroughs originated in defence research: ultrasound, radar to mention 2".

@PD_Smith: "That's undeniable. But science should, and can be, about so much more than military hardware."

"I agree," @lorddrayson replied. "Defence is but a small part of the whole. "Science so what; So everything"....will continue from BIS... @sciencesowhat".

And with this rather hand-waving allusion to the grandeur of science and a website, @lorddrayson moved on to deal with other people's questions on this issue. As an exercise in government engaging with the public I give him full marks. Indeed, let's have more of it. But it didn't really cast much light on the question as to why this government thinks a full-time science minister is not needed, let alone deal with the ethical issues raised by lumping science and defence together under one minister. Maybe he will discuss these matters in more detail in the opinion piece the Times Higher Education Supplement offered him afterwards.

I have to say, chatting with the Minister for Science & Defence Procurement is one of the most intriguing Twitter experiences I have had to date. But I hope it doesn't happen every day. It's very distracting. And I have work to do.

16 comments so far:

  1. Science minister’s question time | 09 June 2009

    [...] Sophia Collins at “I am a scientist. Get me out of here” and PD Smith have blogged on the exchange – read Smith for a concise account of the discussion, and Collins [...]

  2. John Self | 09 June 2009

    Great stuff - just as businesses can do valuable (if minor) customer services interaction via Twitter, so it seems can government ministers provide a small degree of accountability. Good work PD!

  3. PD Smith | 09 June 2009

    Thanks John!

  4. Karen James | 09 June 2009

    I can't believe I missed this. THanks for writing it up, though - I almost feel like I was there!

  5. Clare D | 09 June 2009

    Aha, this makes it much more readable. A Twitter landmark, I think! Very exciting.

  6. Paul Halpern | 09 June 2009

    Wow, sounds like you’ve made Twitter history. Amazing that he tweeted back. I would certainly be shocked if someone official responded to anything I wrote. Interesting dialogue.

    I can imagine a new television series emerging from this: a combination of the classic series “Yes Minister” and “The Prisoner” along with elements of a modern interactive reality series. It would be called “Yes Science Minister” (changed in the second season to “Yes Science and Defence Procurement Minister”)

    I picture something like this:

    A vintage Lotus Seven racecar zooms through the streets of London, winding its way at top speed past familiar landmarks. The driver looks very determined. Near Whitehall the car enters a tunnel. The driver exits the vehicle and walks down a long mysterious corridor. He passes several missile silos and then finally enters a small circular room.

    Suddenly the door closes behind him and a chair rises from the floor. Sitting in the chair is the Prime Minister. The PM speaks:

    PM: Why did you resign? We need information! Information!

    Driver: I beg your pardon, sir, but I didn’t resign. I am very loyal. That’s why I raced over here.

    PM: You didn’t resign? I’m sorry… I just assumed… Everyone else has quit … In that case, as we are a bit short of staff, may I interest you in a new combined portfolio: science and defence procurement.

    (Aside to the audience) Now the part you’ve all been waiting for: the interactive portion of the programme. I urge viewers at home to phone in or tweet your opinions about this move. Our tweet staff and ministers are on call. Don’t be shy! We are the party of the people after all.

  7. PD Smith | 10 June 2009

    That's brilliant Paul! You're clearly a very perceptive observer of the British political scene. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if this comes true sooner than you think...!

  8. PD Smith | 10 June 2009

    BTW, for other views of what happened see the following blogs:

    Times Online

    The Great Beyond (Nature)

    2020 Science

    I'm a Scientist Get Me Out of Here

    Just a Theory

    The Scientific Activist

  9. Peter Rowlett | 10 June 2009

    "The Man from the Ministries", presumably 😉

    Interesting post. I had a slightly scary moment a few months ago with "Lord Drayson is now following you on Twitter". "What? Who? Eek!"

  10. Just A Theory » DIUS, bias and twitter to the defence… | 10 June 2009

    [...] yesterday on twitter. One of the contributors to the online dialogue has a helpful rundown of it here. And as my colleague Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) tweeted, “Hats off for the chance for [...]

  11. Jesse Wells | 11 June 2009

    The "Silos" he was referring to are not the missile bearing kind, but a type of social structure that often blocks communication and the gaining of results in organizations.

    Think of it in terms of the people or person in control of each "silo" believing that they know best, because their work is the most important. So they ignore or even actively work against the goals of the other isolated "silos".


    This is a large part of the reason California's state government is so messed up, believe me, this Yankee saw it from the inside.

  12. PD Smith | 11 June 2009

    Thanks for that - very helpful. I have to admit I was being a bit cheeky there...!

  13. Michael | 16 June 2009

    I can virtually see him sitting in a boring meeting of the science committee, or of the musical chairs cabinet, happily tweeting away. The important thing to know about him is though, that as a co-founder of Powderject, he got extremely lucky -- without ever reaching its original goal (bringing needle-less injection to market) the company made its founders incredibly wealthy. So he can very happily indulge in his pleasures from car racing to tweeting, from supporting science to buying battleships for the government, safe in the knowledge that he doesn't actually have to work ever again. what a lucky b******.

  14. PD Smith | 17 June 2009

    Yes, lucky indeed. Although if I had as much money as he does, I can think of better things to do with my time than sitting in Cabinet meetings! I guess it's all about power though...

  15. WeBlogScience » Blog Archive » SciCom Links 23/6/09 | 23 June 2009

    [...] >> Lord Drayson engages with the masses on Twitter >> Just a Theory; 2020 Science; I’m a Scientist; PD Smith [...]

  16. Luis Sancho | 04 July 2009

    Well it seems to me very consequential, 2/3rds of scientific budgets go to physics worldwide and 2/3rds of physics research is on weapons, now disguised of 'peaceful research' and 'religious marketing' such as CERN looking for the God's particle, aka higgs, which is in fact the already found top quark as per nambu.
    In other words a hoax, relic of the old military-industrial complex of 'atomic cannons', a quark cannon that after the dumb hole made at haifa which didnt evaporate, will probably do black holes that wont evaporate... all this and more...
    not to bore... makes very reasonable mr. Drayson's position
    carpe diem

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