Sunday, September 5, 2010

Back to the Future

I was greatly depressed to read an article by Rob Sharp in last week's Independent, which discussed the potential impacts of a proposed 25% cut in government spending on research that forms part of the UK government's package of austerity measures. Strangely enough, however, it wasn't the cuts themselves that depressed me - after the events of the past few months, I'm pretty much burnt out on the subject of the Tories and their never-ending assault on public spending. No, what depressed me was Sharp's argument that the cuts would harm the competitiveness of the UK, by choking-off potentially valuable inventions.

I had a ringside seat the last time a Conservative government tried to overhaul research funding. This was back in 1993, when I was working for the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). As a result of the Government's plans, SERC and the other research councils were broken up and repurposed as "mission-oriented" agencies whose remit was to fund research that would lead to "wealth generation." In other words, we were to give grants to people whose research might ultimately lead to commercial products. Of course, this was a dumb idea; we spent a lot of time talking to industry about what sort of research they thought we should be funding and the answer was unanimous - what they wanted us to fund was "blue skies" research - the sort of work that no company could justify doing in their in-house labs.

The problem in 1993, and what we're seeing again in 2010, is a fundamental misunderstanding of why governments should sponsor research. Spending taxpayer pounds (or dollars) in order to generate "innovation," which Sharp seems to think this is all about, is a waste of money because innovation is so unpredictable - most academic research does not lead to marketable inventions and so there is a negligible return on the amount invested. Focusing on products is unhelpful, because it suggests that research that does not generate a product has failed, or is unworthy of support. Obviously paleontology falls into this category, but so does particle physics, astrophysics, and a host of other disciplines that help us to understand natural processes. This is not to say that they don't have "real world" applications - much of our ability to model the effects of climate change, for example, is based on paleontological data. But they won't let you sell a cloaking device, a hovercar, or a jet pack.

I may be showing my socialist roots here, but I think governments should support research because they have a responsibility to maintain the intellectual health of their country. This may seem like an amorphous concept, but ultimately it determines the standard of education that citizens receive; the accuracy of the information that's available to them; the quality of the life choices that they make; and, yes, the economic health of the nation. From the perspective of history, the size of a country's research base dictates the extent to which it can contribute to the ever-growing global corpus of knowledge. This is the sort of national pride issue that any government should be able to understand, not least the one whose country has given the world Newton, Faraday, Darwin, and Hawking to name but a few.

Government research funding comes from taxation. People don't like paying taxes because they don't have a lot of money (although it's one of life's paradoxes that the people who like taxes the least are often those most able to afford them), they're worried about losing their job at the Piggly Wiggly,  and they don't see why someone should take their money and spend it on something that doesn't directly benefit them. Understandable though this may be, the world turns on bigger issues than these. Focusing on "usefulness" may help assuage angry taxpayers, but it's no basis for making policy decisions.


  1. Nice posting. I agree that "usefulness" is a problematic benchmark for deciding on government spending. But, I'm uncertain about what are the appropriate standards to apply and who should do the applying when it's public funds being allocated (or cut). It's a case of science meeting the "real" world.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tony - I think most people would agree that state-funded research ought to be useful; the issue is how you measure usefulness. Citing novel inventions engages the public, but people are often unaware that these depend on an enormous body of basic research, not to mention lab infrastructure, and training of personnel. Inventions are like the icing on the cake - the risk in concentrating on them in press coverage is that people start to think that they can have their icing without paying for the cake.

    That was a more confectionary-based metaphor than I had intended, by the way.