The Higher Education and Research Bill, the Haldane principle, and the autonomy of science

The UK government’s Higher Education and Research Bill is currently working its way through parliament – it’s currently in the committee stage at the House of Lords, where it’s encountering some turbulence. A recent newspaper article by (Lord) Chris Patten – “Leave state control of Universities to China” – gives a sense of how some are perceiving the issues … “But the bill that he [Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation] recommends we swallow gives the secretary of state greater power than ever to direct the course of research.”

Any discussion of who has the power to direct government funded research in the UK will very soon invoke something called the “Haldane principle”, which is held by many to be a quasi-constitutional principle upholding the autonomy of the research community and its immunity from direct political direction, and indeed the government has been at pains to affirm its adherence to this tradition, stating for example in a publication about the Bill (Higher Education and Research Bill: UKRI Vision, Principles & Governance) that “The commitment to the Haldane principle will be strengthened and protected.”

Nonetheless, the Bill itself does not refer to the Haldane principle. The Bill sets up a new body to oversee science funding, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and section 96 of the Bill seems pretty explicit about where power will lie. Clause 1 of section 96 states baldly “The Secretary of State may give UKRI directions about the allocation or expenditure by UKRI of grants received”. And for the avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, clause 4 underlines clause 1 thus: “UKRI must comply with any directions given under this section”.

So, what is the Haldane principle, and if the Haldane principle really does protect the autonomy of science, how can this be consistent with direct control the new Bill gives the Minister? To get to the bottom of this, it’s worth asking three separate questions. Firstly, what did the supposed originator of the principle, Lord Haldane, actually say? Secondly, what do people now understand by the “Haldane principle”, and what purposes are served by invoking it? And lastly, we should perhaps put aside the constitutional history and go back to first principles to ask what the proper relationship between politicians and the scientific enterprise should be.

The supposed origin of the Haldane principle is in a report written in 1918 by the “Machinery of Government Committee”, chaired by Viscount Richard Haldane. (It should perhaps be pointed out that this Haldane is not the same as the famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who was in fact Richard Haldane’s nephew).

This is a very famous and important report in the history of UK public administration – it established some principles of executive government still followed in the UK today, recommending the foundation of the Cabinet Office, and the creation of Ministries based around key functions, such as Education, Health, Defense, and Finance. It does talk quite extensively about research and intelligence, but it’s clear that Haldane usually means something rather different to academic science when he uses these terms. His focus is much more on what we would call the evidence base for policy.

However, Haldane does discuss the arrangements for supporting medical research, which over the years evolved into the Medical Research Council, and he commends the way the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was arranged. The key feature here is that responsibility for spending money on research proposals rests with a Minister, who has to answer to Parliament, but that “the scientific and technical soundness of all research proposals recommended for State assistance is guaranteed by constant resort to the guidance of an Advisory Council, consisting of a small number of eminent men of science, with an Administrative Chairman”*. Some sense of the kind of research being talked about is given by the examples given – “certain enquiries into questions of urgent practical importance relating to the preservation of fish”, “the mortality and illness due to TNT poisoning”. The importance of expert advice emerges clearly, but this doesn’t read like a statement of principle about the autonomy of basic science.

So if Viscount Haldane didn’t invent the Haldane principle, who did? The historian David Edgerton (in his article “The ‘Haldane Principle’ and other invented traditions in science policy”) points the finger at the Conservative politician Lord Hailsham. He invoked the “Haldane principle” in the early 1960s to score a political point off his Labour opponents.

Clearly the Haldane principle still has considerable rhetorical power, so different meanings are attached to it by different people to the degree that these meanings support the arguments they are making. In a general sense, there’s an agreement that the Haldane principle has something to do with the protection of the operation of science from direct political interventions, but within this I’d identify two rather different versions.

In the first version, the Haldane principle relates to the devolution of decisions about scientific matters to groups of experts – the Research Councils. This is actually the version that is enshrined in current legislation, to the extent that the powers and responsibilities of the Research Councils are defined by their Royal Charters. When I talk about Research Councils here, I don’t mean the organisations in their Swindon offices – I mean the 15 or so experts who are appointed by the Minister to form each of the research councils’ governing boards (this is the position I hold for the EPSRC). These boards are, in effect, the descendants of the advisory Councils specified by Viscount Haldane – but in the current legislation they do have more independence and autonomy than Haldane implies. But this autonomy is codified in the Royal Charters that the current Higher Education and Research Bill would rescind.

This version of the Haldane principle – the devolution of technical decision-making to bodies of experts – can be thought of as an example of the wider trend in government to offload its responsibilities to technocratic bodies – the granting of independence to the Bank of England and the empowering of the Monetary Policy Committee to set interest rates being perhaps the most visible example.

But another reading of the Haldane principle takes the correct level of devolution of power to be, not to a small group of the scientific great and good, but to the broader scientific community. This comes in a strong version and a weak one. The strong version holds that the scientific enterprise (as conceptualised by Michael Polanyi as a Hayekian spontaneous order – the “independent republic of science”) should not be subject to any external steering at all, and should be configured to maximise, above all, scientific excellence (for some value of “excellence”, of course). Unsurprisingly, this view is popular amongst many elite scientists.

The weak version concedes that at the micro-level of individual research proposals, decisions should be left to peer review, but insists that larger scale, strategic decisions can and should be subject to political control. This is essentially the interpretation of the Haldane principle favoured by recent governments. Of course, in this interpretation, where the line of demarcation between strategic decisions and individual research proposals falls is crucial and contested.

If the point at issue is when, and at what level, it is appropriate for politicians to directly intervene in the selection of research projects, we should ask what purposes could be served by such intervention.

An intrinsically authoritarian government might feel that it ought to have such control on principle, without any particular instrumental purpose.

A government that was excessively concerned about its short-term popularity might seek to use such decisions to gain immediate political advantage, for example by announcing the kind of new initiatives that might attract headlines and win votes in marginal constituencies. The devolution of this kind of decision making to technocratic committees can be read as a recognition by politicians that they need to be thus protected from their own worst instincts, tied to the mast, as it were.

But if a government has an overwhelming strategic purpose, then it might feel that the urgency of that purpose might justify rather direct interventions in the direction of research. To go back to the original Haldane, it’s clear that this is the historical context of that 1918 report.

The central purpose of the state then was clear – “to defeat German militarism”. And as we look back on that war now with horror as an exemplar of futile mass slaughter, it’s easy to forget the degree to which the First World War was a scientific and technological war. Britain had relied for some decades on technology rather than mass mobilisation for its global military power, and the war was born out of a naval arms race of Dreadnoughts, torpedoes and sophisticated fire control. The war itself brought aeroplanes, tanks, submarines, chemicals for new munitions (and chemical weapons), together with state control of the means of production, and Haldane himself, as prewar War Minister, had been central in the modernisation of Britain’s armed forces to exploit these technologies.

My own view is that the elected government do have the right to intervene in the direction of research, but that such interventions need to be motivated by a clearly articulated sense of strategic purpose. For most of the twentieth century, Britain’s “Warfare State” supplied, for better or worse, just such a clear sense of purpose. What’s our urgent sense of state purpose for the 21st century?

* The gendered language leaps out, of course, but in fairness to Viscount Haldane it’s worth pointing out that the report also contains a strikingly modern section about the value of diversity and the importance of opening up senior civil service roles to women. Beatrice Webb was on the committee, as was a notably reactionary Treasury Permanent Secretary, Sir George Murray, who added a note dissenting on this section to his signature.

I’m grateful to Alice Vadrot, convenor of an STS reading group at Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy, and its other members, for a stimulating discussion of some of these ideas at its most recent meeting.

4 thoughts on “The Higher Education and Research Bill, the Haldane principle, and the autonomy of science”

  1. I thought government steered science all the time – so, for example, something like the 8 Great Technologies was a government initiative and surely steered the RCUK agenda quite directly? The Millenium/Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the government I felt also had a significant influence on research undertaken as well as many other such things I am sure. Do these count?

    Interested also in your view of the role of ‘society’ in this debate Richard, whoever that ends up being. For example, lobbying by organisations like medical charities, businesses in certain technological areas or others like environmentalists and climate change seems to me to directly influence government and research policy, by being rewarded by research initiatives.

    My understanding of all of this is clearly limited, so I would be interested to be enlightened as to whether the principle is one thing and the reality another!

  2. Good question – I think the important point is drawing the lines between “influence”, “steer” and “direct” when it comes to the relationship between the government and science. I think “8 Great Technologies” was an example of influencing – there was no directive to the research councils that they should concentrate on these areas, but RCs might have thought it prudent to map some of their existing activities to the 8 Greats, and it probably influenced priorities at the margin.

    The quantum technology initiative was undoubtedly an example of “steering” – this was an initiative that came from outside the research councils, who were given extra money to implement it and were left with considerable discretion about how they put the initiative into operation. I think this would fit into the government’s definition of the Haldane principle – they gave the research councils a strategic steer, but it was left to experts and peer review to work out how best this should be executed – where the centres should be, which groups should be involved, etc.

    The graphene centre at Manchester, however, fell into the category of “directing”, though – it was made clear by government not just that there should be a new initiative in graphene, but that it should be located at Manchester. You could take the view with this one that although, as a matter of principle, this was a contravention of the Haldane principle even in the weak form favoured by the government, in practise it’s difficult to imagine a peer review process that would not come up with Manchester as the answer (“please list in your application the number of applicants who have won Nobel prizes for discovering Graphene” would have probably done the trick).

    This way of awarding science funding is well-known in the USA, where it’s called “pork-barrel funding”. I think it’s a science policy misdemeanour, in that while it’s likely to lead to worse value for money and poorer quality science than more open competitions it will probably still deliver something useful.

    What one should really worry about is the strong political direction of science by governments instructing that whole areas should not be funded. There does seem to be a strong risk of this in the USA now – I’d be very worried if I was a climate change researcher there, for example. It’s possible to say that the kind of assault on freedom of inquiry we’ve seen in Turkey recently, that must surely be a risk in President Trump’s USA, couldn’t happen here because of the understandings and conventions that govern the relationship between the UK government and science.

    But I think this view is complacent, and those examples should make us wary about removing what are currently protections that have legal force, relying on the goodwill of future governments not to abuse the extra powers the current government proposes to give them.

  3. Your question about where society fits in is also an important one that deserves a reply of its own. Currently businesses, medical charities and NGOs have both direct formal roles, with representatives on Research Councils and advisory committees, and a great deal of informal influence on government (which the research councils are not shy about using to further their perceived interests). It’s an open question as to whether the balance of interests between different stakeholders is appropriate.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful replies Richard, very enlightening in an area I was pondering.

    Re business and society, you are aware probably of this initiative The Innovation Principle, from a large group of businesses pleading with the EU to consider innovation and its lost opportunities, when making policy and regulatory decisions.

    It states in a monograph, ‘…the regulatory environment at EU-level has become increasingly characterised by risk avoidance rather than risk acceptance and a preference for social concern rather than science when making risk management decisions’.

    If one gets over one’s cynicism about businesses asking for less regulation, perhaps they have a point, as many in risk and science have been saying for a while, to the detriment of the ability of us all to see the reality of risk and proportionate regulatory response.

    Could it be that policy makers are so in thrall to those who shout loudest and about society’s views that they trade short-term popularity for strategy? My NGO buddies would be having an apoplexy at this point, as they feel as a rule that they are fundamentally ignored, but I am persuaded that it’s all a bit of a mess and there has to be a better, evidence based, way to balance competing views, stakeholders, strategies, priorities and principles is a thankless task for all concerned! Perhaps not.

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