Some questions for British research policy

This piece is based on a summing-up I did at a meeting in London this March: A New Mandate? Research Policy in the 21st Century.

There seem to be two lurking worries that concern people in science policy in the UK at the moment. The first is the worry that, having built a case for state support of science on the basis that this will lead to innovation and economic growth, that innovation and economic growth may not be delivered. The second is that the scientific enterprise doesn’t have a sufficiently broad base of popular support. In short, are we suffering from an innovation deficit, and does our research effort have a democratic deficit?

An innovation deficit

The letter with the funding settlement from BIS to the Research Councils called for “even more impact” – the impact agenda in research councils and funding agencies really is accompanied by a sense of increased urgency of an argument that is by no means settled.

To many scientists the economic case for supporting science may seem self-evident, but the solid evidence in support of this is surprisingly slippery. There is certainly the feeling in some quarters – and not just the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins – that the economic impact of science has been oversold. The Royal Society’s “The Scientific Century” document was a serious attempt to assemble the evidence. What strikes me, though, is that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to try and give an answer to the primary question – to what extent should the state support science – without considering the much broader question of how our political and economic system is set up to support innovation.

And it is in relation to innovation that there are some more general worries, both at a global level and in our own national circumstances:

  • Is the rate of innovation actually slowing – leaving aside the special case of information technology, have the easiest gains from new technology already been made? I discussed this in an earlier post Accelerating Change or Innovation Stagnation?
  • Is our UK innovation system broken? In the UK postwar settlement, universities were only one of a number of kinds of places where research – especially more applied research – was carried out. Major conglomerates like ICI and GEC had large corporate laboratories, there were major government laboratories associated with organisations like the Atomic Energy Authority, and the military supported laboratories like RSRE Malvern which combined quite basic research with more strategic research and development. In the post-Thatcher climate of privatisation, deregulation and the drive to “unlock shareholder value” most of these alternative research organisations have disappeared.
  • In their place, we see a new emphasis on the development of protectable intellectual property in Universities with a view to creating venture-capital backed spin-out companies. This gives rise to two questions – how effective is this as a mechanism for technology transfer, and does the new emphasis on protectable IP have any deleterious effects on innovation itself? Certainly, the experience of nano- and bio- technology does point to potential problems of patent thickets and an “anti-commons” effect in academia, where pre-existing IP positions inhibit other scientists from working in particular areas. It’s these worries, among other factors, that have driven a move to a more open-source approach, now spreading from IT to new areas like synthetic biology.
  • For the UK, the pharmaceutical industry has been particularly important, as an industry of genuinely international stature which has been politically very important in making the case for state-supported science (and influencing the shape of that support). So the fact that this industry is having innovation difficulties of its own – the closure of the Pfizer R&D site at Sandwich being a very visible signal of this – is worrying.
  • We’re seeing the introduction of a new kind of institution into the innovation landscape – the Technology and Innovation Centres. There’s still uncertainty about their role and some governance issues are still unclear, but what’s most significant is that there is a widely perceived gap that they are intended to fill.
  • A democratic deficit

    The idea that we’re in the midst of a popular crisis in trust in science is deeply embedded. I’m not convinced that the crisis in trust is with science itself, rather than the use of science in politics and commerce, which is something slightly different, but nonetheless this idea has been a driving force for much of the new enthusiasm for public engagement and dialogue, and for taking this public engagement upstream. While some people (including me) would want to set this move as part of a broader move to steer technology to meet widely shared societal goals, there is still a sense that for many, this is still seen as being about gaining acceptance for new technologies.

    On the face of it, these two worries – of an innovation deficit and of a democratic deficit – look to be in opposition. The idea of an innovation deficit suggests that our problem is that technology isn’t moving fast enough, and we have to work to remove obstacles in the way of innovation, while the negative perception of public engagement holds that its job is to put those obstacles back in the way. In fact, in times like now this perception is a real danger.

    But actually they’re quite closely connected. Underneath these dilemmas are two worries – a loss of confidence in the self-organising capability of the scientific enterprise, and a sense that something’s missing in our innovation system.

    Research councils – “from funder to sponsor”

    It’s these worries that underly current moves in the UK research councils, perhaps most explicitly defined by EPSRC, in their aim of “moving from funder to a sponsor” – i.e. moving from the position of responding to the agenda of the scientific community, towards commissioning research in support of national needs.

    The issues then are, how is national need defined, and how is the process of defining that national need given legitimacy?

    This is a big problem in our current system, where our political fashion is explicitly not to define such a need in anything other than rather general and vacuous terms (like saying we need to have a “knowledge economy”). To pose the question in its most pointed form, does it make sense to have a science policy if you don’t have an industrial policy?

    This situation puts research councils in a very difficult position. If governments are not prepared to develop such an industrial policy, how can the research councils do this – how can they do it practically, and how can their decisions acquire legitimacy?

    These legitimacy problems come in three directions:
    1. with the scientific community
    2. with the government
    3. with the population at large.

    The scientific community will see a potential clash with the Haldane principle (invented tradition though David Edgerton says this is), which could be interpreted as saying that the scientific community is the primary source, as an embodiment of the principle of autonomy of the scientific enterprise.

    With the government, a research council like EPSRC is in a very difficult position. They have to deliver the science in support of a national policy which does not, in fact, exist, but they will be judged by very instrumental measures of wealth creation.

    Can “challenge-led” research help?

    “Societal challenges” offer a new synthesis that can be considered a response to this. I find this attractive as a way of getting beyond a sterile dichotomy between applied and basic research, but the definitions of what might be meant by a societal challenge are contested, value-laden and full of interpretive flexibility.

    Societal challenges do have an advantage, in having a certain security in the face of political uncertainty and lack of direction, and a certain independence from political whims. Who can really disagree with the idea that sustainable energy will be a big deal on rather long timescales, for example?

    But there are problems – can governments genuinely take a long enough view? How can we avoid fads and the herd mentality? How can we be prepared for the inevitable unanticipated changes in direction in world events? how can we move from generalities to the particularities of real technologies?

    What is the place of public engagement? On the one hand, what better way of getting a direct view about what national need should be than consulting the public directly? Public engagement then presents itself as a partial solution to the problem of legitimacy, but one that isn’t necessarily going to make their relationship with government any easier.

    There is one other set of institutions that, strangely, don’t get mentioned very often. Those are the Universities. What’s their role? Can they be more than just a loose coalition of individual researchers responding to the incentives and demands of the research councils and other funders? Universities have their own considerable intellectual resources across the disciplines, and they have their own long history and independence, so one might hope that Universities themselves could be another focus for reasserting the public value of research. For a civic university like my own, Sheffield, surely the University should as a focus for the aspirations of the community it serves.

    Science and politics

    There is another driving force for public engagement; the sense that representative government is failing to provide a space for discussing big issues about our future choices and how people want to live their lives. Science and technology have to be a part of this discussion, and this is why discussions about science and technology must have a political dimension. There are those who assert the opposite – that science doesn’t have or shouldn’t have a political dimension, and that technology is autonomous, out of control, and can’t be directed. But these assertions are themselves profoundly political statements.

    Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?

    In a recent roundup of nanotechnology activity across the world, the consultancy Cientifica puts the UK’s activity pretty much at the bottom of the class. Is this a fair reflection of the actual situation? Comparing R&D numbers across countries is always difficult, because of the different institutional arrangements and different ways spending is categorised; but, broadly, this feels about right. Currently, the UK has no actual on-going nanotechnology program. Activity continues in projects that are already established, but the current plans for government science spending in the period 2011- 2015, as laid out in the various research council documents, reveal no future role for nanotechnology. The previous cross-council program “Nanoscience engineering through application” has been dropped; all the cross-council programmes now directly reflect societal themes such as “ageing population, environmental change, global security, energy, food security and the digital economy”. The delivery plan for the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, previously the lead council for nanotechnology, does not even mention the word, while the latest strategy document for the Technology Strategy Board, responsible for nearer-market R&D support, notes in a footnote that nanotechnology is “now embedded in all themes where there are such opportunities”.

    So, why has the UK given up on nanotechnology? I suggest four reasons.

    1. The previous government’s flagship nanotechnology program – the network of Micro- and Nano- Technology centres (the MNT program) is perceived as having failed. This program was launched in 2003, with initial funding of £90 million, a figure which subsequently was intended to rise to £200 million. But last July, the new science minister, David Willetts, giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, picked on nanotechnology as an area in which funding had been spread too thinly, and suggested that the number of nanotechnology centres was likely to be substantially pruned. To my knowledge, none of these centres has received further funding. In designing the next phase of the government’s translational research centres – a new network of Technology and Innovation Centres, loosely modelled on the German Fraunhofer centres, it seems that the MNT program has been regarded as a cautionary tale of how not to do things, rather than an example to build on, and nanotechnology in itself will play little part in these new centres (though, of course, it may well be an enabling technology for things like a regenerative medicine).

    2. There has been no significant support for nanotechnology from the kinds of companies and industries that government listens to. This is partly because the UK is now weak in those industrial sectors that would be expected to be most interested in nanotechnology, such as the chemicals industry and the electronics industry. Large national champions in these sectors with the power to influence government, in the way that now-defunct conglomerates like ICI and GEC did in the past, are particularly lacking. Companies selling directly to consumers, in the food and personal care sectors, have been cautious about being too closely involved in nanotechnology for fear of a consumer backlash. The pharmaceutical industry, which is still strong in the UK, has other serious problems to deal with, so nanotechnology has been, for them, a second order issue. And the performance of small, start-up companies based on nanotechnology, such as Oxonica, has been disappointing. The effect of this was brought home to me in March 2010, when I met the then Science Minister, Lord Drayson, to discuss on behalf of the Royal Society the shortcomings of the latest UK Nanotechnology Strategy. To paraphrase his response, he said he knew the strategy was poor, but that was the fault of the nanotechnology community, which had not been able to get its act together to convince the government it really was important. He contrasted this with the space industry, which had been able to make what to him was a very convincing case for its importance.

    3. The constant criticism that the government was receiving about its slow response to issues of the safety and environmental impact of nanotechnology was, I am sure, a source of irritation. The reasons for this slow response were structural, related to the erosion of support for strategic science within government (as opposed to the kind of investigator led science funded by the research councils – see this blogpost on the subject from Jack Stilgoe), but in this environment civil servants might be forgiven for thinking that this issue had more downside than upside.

    4. Within the scientific community, there were few for whom the idea of nanotechnology was their primary loyalty. After the financial crisis, when it was clear that big public spending cuts were likely and their were fears of very substantial cuts in science budgets, it was natural for scientists either to lobby on behalf of their primary disciplines or to emphasise the direct application of their work to existing industries with strong connections to government, like the pharmaceutical and aerospace industries. In this climate, the more diffuse idea of nanotechnology slipped down a gap.

    Does it matter that, in the UK, nanotechnology is no longer a significant element of science and innovation policy? On one level, one could argue that it doesn’t. Just because nanotechnology isn’t an important category by which science is classified by, this doesn’t mean that the science that would formerly have been so classified doesn’t get done. We will still see excellent work being supported in areas like semiconductor nanotechnology for optoelectronics, plastic electronics, nano-enabled drug delivery and DNA nanotech, to give just a few examples. But there will be opportunities missed to promote interdisciplinary science, and I think this really does matter. In straitened times, there’s a dangerous tendency for research organisations to retreat to core business, to single disciplines, and we’re starting to see this happening now to some extent. Interdisciplinary, goal-oriented science is still being supported through the societal themes, like the programs in energy and ageing, and it’s going to be increasingly important that these themes do indeed succeed in mobilising the best scientists from different areas to work together.

    But I worry that it very much does matter that the UK’s efforts at translating nanotechnology research into new products and new businesses has not been more successful. But this is part of a larger problem. The UK has, for the last thirty years, not only not had an industrial policy to speak of, it has had a policy of not having an industrial policy. But the last three years have revealed the shortcomings of this, as we realise that we aren’t any more going to be able to rely on a combination of North Sea oil and the ephemeral virtual profits of the financial services industry to keep the country afloat