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:
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.