The science we want and the science we need

Dr Jack Stilgoe is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Business School. The following article originally appeared on his policy blog.

An interesting piece in the Times Higher on historian David Edgerton’s analysis of the Haldane principle. He’s been saying it for a while, but it is too inconvenient for policymakers to hear it: The Haldane Principle, a sacred cow of UK science policy, doesn’t exist. But its non-existence doesn’t stop it getting invoked every time we talk about research funding.

Academics point to something called a Haldane principle every time their autonomy seems under threat (as in the recent hoo-ha over the AHRC’s “Big Society” programme). According to their version of Haldane, Government should keep its nose out of decisions about research projects or programmes. That’s why the Research Councils are semi-independent. And in Swindon.  As Edgerton puts it, “the Haldane Principle was invented at the moment it was seriously challenged, and would reappear in discussion at just such moments of contention”.

The Haldane principle, if we might want to reinvent it as a useful policy device, should not be about academic autonomy; it should be about who is best placed to make decisions. Government is not close enough or imaginative enough to shape the best possible research so we let scientists decide which are the most promising areas of science.

The current set-up has been pretty good at giving the UK the research it thinks it wants (world-leading, stuffed with Nobels and Nature papers). But talk of Haldane distracts attention from what I believe is a bigger problem – Government’s inability to fund the science it needs. I heard Richard Jones use this analogy to describe what happened when Government was told by the Royal Society that it should conduct research on the risks of nanoparticles. Five years later, it still hadn’t done so, forcing the then science minister Malcolm Wicks to answer, on the Today programme:

“We need more research and I recognise that. . . . But this is not about money. The research councils. . . have  never  been  better funded. . . . What’s  happened  is  that they haven’t had, and this is what the MRC tell us, sufficiently high quality research applications to award the grants.”

To which Ed Stourton responded: ‘So it’s the scientists’ fault, not your fault at all?’

And the minister replied: ‘Look, it wouldn’t be right for a minister to say, “you scientists do this”. (More on this here… (pdf))

How did we get into a situation in which a science minister feels unable to tell scientists what to do with public money? There are countless topics on which Government needs to conduct research. The more tangible Rothschild reforms of the 1970s reminded Government of this. But, contra Wicks, it is about money. The hidden trend of the last few decades has been a withering in research not funded by the research councils – call it strategic, non-departmental, whatever. Things like national labs and departmental research programmes have collapsed, leaving Government largely unable to conduct the research it needs.

The ever-excellent Dan Sarewitz, writing in Nature, describes what it would really take to make science useful. The US military-industrial complex, for all its terrifying aspects, was awesomely good at getting the research it needed. Talk of economic growth now trumps national defence as a strategic rationale for science, but scientists and Government both pretend that it will simply happen on its own, or simply by shouting the word “IMPACT” at universities.

If policymakers were serious about science being the source of economic growth, what would policy actually look like? I don’t know, but I would suggest that we wouldn’t want to start from here.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 27/06/2011 at 18:23 | Permalink

    Yes, I was surprised recently by a comment from a senior RCUK person in response to my question about getting access to what I thought should by now be a useful body of nano tox evidence, that (a) there wasn’t any and (b) when asked when some would be done that (b) ‘We are hoping that businesses will do it?’. Hm, thinks me, so you are hoping business will do it, but aren’t making them, incentivising them, rewarding them or in fact even asking them. Great technology confidence building strategy!

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