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Monday, March 16, 2009

The great debate

I said in my earlier post that I support the debate over the future of research in the UK and I thought I would clarify. I think scientific research has a role to play in driving the economy, a big role, in fact. I also said that I was worried about the government's plans, mostly that they don't really have any, and what they do have is ill thought through.

I know, I know, they are only consulting at this time, but the rhetoric from Denham and others is such as to make one wonder.

Today, scientists are being told that they have to identify the economic impact of their work. Every grant application has a section devoted to economic impact. This has been viewed with scorn in some quarters. Distinguished scientists have called for a modest-revolt against this practice, especially since the economic impact statement has no teeth (the statement is not considered in the funding process). I'm not sure what the worth of these compulsory plans is beyond adding to the red-tape and bureaucracy that scientists find themselves plunged ever deeper into. The idea of a revolt has been challenged:

But he[Denham] criticised recent suggestions from researchers that they should refuse in principle to describe the relevance of their research.

"It can't be right to expect billions of pounds of funding and then systematically deny the taxpayer any insight into its potential applications to the economy, public policy or popular understanding," he said.

I fear that the secretary of state is missing the point, and is quite frankly attempting to score points by turning those who oppose the idea of 'economic impact' into the enemy. Cheap rhetorical tricks abound in the paragraph above.

Sometimes with scientific ideas and research it is quite clear how it could lead to something of economic or societal worth. Other times it is far less clear, yet ten or twenty years down the line ideas come into their own and their worth becomes apparent.

If something has clearly identifiable benefits in the short term then by all means the mechanisms should be in place to encourage the researchers to pursue those impacts. However, to force all applicants to create an economic impact statement is not efficient and, dare I say, not particularly economical.

One also has to consider that some ideas on their own will never result in an economical benefit, does that mean that they should not be funded? What about the greater advance of human knowledge, or are we no longer concerned about the cornerstones of civilization? How about if some aspect of some obscure piece of research, when combined with a number of other equally obscure things results in a revoltionary discovery?

This drive towards economic impact is essentially asking scientists to predict the future - has anyone ever seens some of those old clips where they attempted to do this? Where is my personal jet-pack?!?

The government maintains that blue-skies research will not be damaged and will be supported since a broad-base is still required, but in the next breath they speak of 'finite budgets'. Regardless of MP Ian Taylor's (of the opposition!) protestations to the contrary this most certainly is a zero-sum game. If funding is focused on some areas it needs to be de-focused from others.

Unless the government fancies printing some more money.

What concerns me most is that the government is acting like it is grasping at straws. To a casual observer it looks as if they have grasped the fundamental point that science is a good thing and have decided to run with it, but have not really looked where they are running.

An uncharitable observer might suggest that the government is desperate for something to pull them out of the economic hole that their bliond faith in the city has dropped us into. Science fits the bill since, to their credit, they have been pumping money into the system for many years now. But they seem to want pay-back now without realising that science cannot work that way in all quarters. They have to accept that the benefits of some of the science they funded will not show through until successive (and unlikely to be Labour) governments. Investment in science pays off for everyone in the longterm and is unlikely to bring short-term political benefits to the investing party.

If the government cocks this up then they could put UK science back in a time of growing international competition. Do they really want to screw up (yet again)? If not they need to tread a lot more carefully than they have been doing and they have to be clear about what they really want from science, otherwise I wonder how big a constituency scientists make in the next general election...

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