Why and how should governments fund basic research?

Yesterday I took part in a Policy Lab at the Royal Society, on the theme The public nature of science – Why and how should governments fund basic research? I responded to a presentation by Professor Helga Nowotny, the Vice-President of the European Research Council, saying something like the following:

My apologies to Helga, but my comments are going to be rather UK-centric, though I hope they illustrate some of the wider points she’s made.

This is a febrile time in British science policy.

We have an obsession amongst both the research councils and the HE funding bodies with the idea of impact – how can we define and measure the impact that research has on wider society? While these bodies are at pains to define impact widely, involving better policy outcomes, improvements in quality of life and broader culture, there is much suspicion that all that really counts is economic impact.

We have had a number of years in which the case that science produces direct and measurable effects on economic growth and jobs has been made very strongly, and has been rewarded by sustained increases in public science spending. There is a sense that these arguments are no longer as convincing as they were a few years ago, at least for the people in Treasury who are going to be making the crucial spending decisions at a time of fiscal stringency. As Helga argues, the relationship between economic growth in the short term, at a country level, and spending on scientific R&D is shaky, at best.

And in response to these developments, we have a deep unhappiness amongst the scientific community at what’s perceived as a shift from pure, curiosity driven, blue skies research into research and development.

What should our response to this be?

One response is to up the pressure on scientists to deliver economic benefits. This, to some extent, is what’s happening in the UK. One problem with this approach is that It probably overstates the importance of basic science in the innovation system. Scientists aren’t the only people who are innovators – innovation takes place in industry, in the public sector, it can involve customers and users too. Maybe our innovation system does need fixing, but it’s not obvious what needs most attention is what scientists do. But certainly, we should look at ways to open up the laboratory, as Helga puts it, and to look at the broader institutional and educational preconditions that allow science-based innovation to flourish.

Another response is to argue that the products of free scientific inquiry have intrinsic societal worth, and should be supported “as an ornament to civilisation”. Science is like the opera, something we support because we are civilised. One trouble with this argument is that it involves a certain degree of personal taste – I dislike opera greatly, and who’s to say that others won’t have the same feeling about astronomy? An even more serious argument is that we don’t actually support the arts that much, in financial terms, in comparison to the science budget. On this argument we’d be employing a lot fewer scientists than we are now (and probably paying them less).

A third response is to emphasise science’s role in solving the problems of society, but emphasising the long-term nature of this project. The idea is to direct science towards broad societal goals. Of course, as soon as one has said this one has to ask “whose goals?” – that’s why public engagement, and indeed politics in the most general sense, becomes important. In Helga’s words, we need to “recontextualise” science for current times. It’s important to stress that, in this kind of “Grand Challenge” driven science, one should specify a problem – not a solution. It is important, as well, to think clearly about different time scales, to put in place possibilities for the long term as well as responding to the short term imperative.

For example, the problem of moving to low-carbon energy sources is top of everyone’s list of grand challenges. We’re seeing some consensus (albeit not a very enthusiastic one) around the immediate need to build new nuclear power stations, to implement carbon capture and storage and to expand wind power, and research is certainly needed to support this, for example to reduce the high cost and energy overheads of carbon capture and storage. But it’s important to recognise that many of these solutions will be at best stop-gap, interim solutions, and to make sure we’re putting the research in place to enable solutions that will be sustainable for the long-term. We don’t know, at the moment, what these solutions will be. Perhaps fusion will finally deliver, maybe a new generation of cellulosic biofuels will have a role, perhaps (as my personal view favours) large scale cheap photovoltaics will be the solution. It’s important to keep the possibilities open.

So, this kind of societally directed, “Grand challenge”, inspired research isn’t necessarily short term, applied research, and although the practicalities of production and scale-up need to integrated at an early stage, it’s not necessarily driven by industry. It needs to preserve a diversity of approaches, to be robust in the face of our inevitable uncertainty.

One of Helga’s contributions to the understanding of modern techno-science has been the idea of “mode II knowledge production”, which she defined in an influential book with Michael Gibbons and others. In this new kind of science, problems are defined from the outset in the context of potential application, they are solved by the bringing together of transient, transdisciplinary networks, and their outcomes are judged by different criteria of quality than pure disciplinary research, including judgements of their likely economical viability or social acceptability.

This idea has been controversial. I think many people accept this represents the direction of travel of recent science. What’s at issue is whether it is a good thing; Helga and her colleagues have been at pains to stress that their work is purely descriptive, and implies no judgement of the desirability of these changes. But many of my colleagues in academic science think they are very definitely undesirable (see my earlier post Mode 2 and its discontents). One interesting point, though, is that in arguing against more directed ways of managing science, many people point to the many very valuable discoveries that have been serendipitously in the course of undirected, investigator driven research. Examples are manifold, from lasers to giant magneto-resistance, to restrict the examples to physics. It’s worth noting, though, that while this is often made as an argument against so-called “instrumental” science, it actually appeals to instrumental values. If you make this argument, you are already conceding that the purpose of science is to yield progress towards economic or political goals; you are simply arguing about the best way to organise science to achieve those goals.

Not that we should think this new. In the manifestos for modern science, written by Francis Bacon, that were so important in defining the mission of this society at its foundation three hundred and fifty years ago, the goal of science is defined as “an improvement in man’s estate and an enlargement of his power over nature”. This was a very clear contextualisation of science for the seventeenth century; perhaps our recontextualisation of science for the 21st century won’t prove so very different.