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Friday, January 11, 2008

Haldane not all done?

This was a response to a question asked yesterday in the commons:

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to make a big statement of principle on this issue. The Haldane principle, established many years ago, says that Ministers should not intervene directly in the funding decisions of research councils. That is to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place. When the Science and Technology Facilities Council made its proposals, despite its above-inflation increase in grant, to reduce certain areas of physics expenditure, it would not have been appropriate to breach the Haldane principle, to step in and to take money away from the Medical Research Council and give it to the STFC. However, because of the concerns, I did my job by asking Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, to produce a report on the health of physics as a discipline, which will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy. As the Secretary of State, I have done what it is right for me to do and—
This is an interesting interpretation of the Haldane principle. I guess it depends on whether one views the STFC as essentially an extension of government or as a scientific body. I can tell you that I doubt many actual scientists view the STFC as a scientific body, they are an administrative centre. Science decisions made by STFC should all depend on the peer-review process. If we follow the Haldane principle then it is essential that any decision made by STFC should come from rigorous peer-review that is beyond reproach. Given all of the reproach floating around I guess that is not the case, no?

I humbly suggest that the secretary of state is asking the wrong questions of himself. He should not worry about whether it is right for him to intervene in what science is carried out under STFC and whether he would be breaching the Haldane principle. That is not the source of the problem. The secretary of state should rather consider whether the large amount of discontent flowing from the scientific community under the STFC umbrella indicates whether the Haldane principle is being properly applied by STFC itself.

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