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.

11 thoughts on “Why and how should governments fund basic research?”

  1. Richard, with reference to your statement,

    “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”

    I wonder if you are aware of the various online petitions such as those on 10 Downing Streets website and in particular the one organised by UCU (https://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=4207) which now contains in excess of 13,600 signatures including a significant number of Nobel Laureates? My question is this, do you believe that petitions such as these have a part to play in a debate such as this and if they do, will they make any sort of impact on the governments decisions or simply be steamrollered?

  2. I do know about these petitions. I know people feel strongly about this, but I can’t help feeling that this is not smart politics. The next spending round is going to be very tight – it’s not difficult to anticipate a post-election emergency budget proposing sweeping, across the board cuts in public spending, and in these circumstances there are going to be people gunning for the science budget. It would be very easy for such people to portray these petitions as indicating that scientists combine a sense of entitlement to public money with a belief that they have no obligation to give anything back to society. Comparing this with the popular support for health spending, say, it’s easy to see the science budget being seen as a soft option to take a substantial cut. And in the context of an overall shrinkage of the science budget, it’s not difficult to imagine where, within the science budget, those cuts would end up disproportionately falling.

  3. Richard, your thoughtful contribution to the debate helpful as always.

    As a non-sci I sometimes can’t see how rising to the challenge of helping solve some of the world’s most pressing problems is ‘stifling’ as people have said. Why wouldn’t all scientists want to focus their attention on these things willingly and be clamouring for funding to support their work? Many who don’t have the skills to make this contribution would envy scientists their ability to make a significant impact in this way.

    But whether we like it or not, there is and always has been, a financial constraint on science funding. So someone, somewhere is already making a judgement about the usefulness of what they money goes to. Isn’t it really just a bit more honest to make this more transparent and have those seeking funding at least consider what contribution their work will make to the world?
    After all the clamour for accountability permeates every other aspect of life, so why not here!

    No, what am I saying!? We need to learn the lessons of ‘other parts of life’ where too much focus on accountability can often distort the ability to deliver and contribute!

  4. Hilary, I’m sure we agree entirely about the measurement problem – as soon as someone devises some scheme to “measure” some desirable outcome, people’s behaviour becomes focused on the measure rather than the outcome itself. But we have to be clear whether we are disagreeing with the goal itself, or the way we measure progress towards the goal. I think the UCU campaign would be immeasurably stronger if it started out with a very clear statement along the lines of “We believe that the major problems that global society will be facing in the next fifty years can only be solved with the help of a strong science base” (if that is what they think – it’s certainly my strong belief). Then one can argue about the best way to organise science to yield those benefits.

    One very surprising piece of information that Helga showed in her talk was the result of a survey amongst STEM academics in the USA. When confronted with the statement “An important value of science is to improve human life” a clear majority either disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. Only 5.4% strongly agreed with it.

    It’s not enough to assert that the value of science can’t or shouldn’t be measured simply in terms of economic, market values – one needs to assert very strongly the wider, public value of science.

  5. Hi, Richard.

    Fascinating and thought-provoking post. Before I comment in more detail, do you have a reference or URL for the study you mention above which found that only 5.4% of STEM academics strongly agreed with the statement “An important value of science is to improve human life”. That’s an intriguing statistic – to put it mildly – but I’d really like to see it in the context of the original study before commenting further.


    Right, back to that FP7 Marie Curie proposal….


  6. The citation on Helga’s slide was “Barry Bozeman 2009, The neglected heart of scientists”, though I’ve not been able to track down the study – presumably it is not yet published.

  7. You quote Francis Bacon. If one looks at the motivation and mechanisms that led to key scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century they provide a very different contexualisation of science. Darwin was able to travel on the Beagle because he was a ‘gentleman’ who could share the captain’s table and relieve the strain of command in a man (Fitzroy) who was worried about the depressive tendencies in his family which isolation could exacerbate in him, but a man who was nevertheless aware how the round-the-world trip could offer fantastic opportunities to a naturalist. Darwin’s botanist friend Joseph Hooker – later Director of Kew and a key player in encouraging Darwin to publish his work as well as a founder of geographical botany – was able to travel on another Admiralty boat involved with a ‘Magnetic Crusade’ because he was able to masquerade as a junior doctor for the crew. So chance and enthusiasm, coupled with the Imperial aspirations of the UK which led the Navy to fund these far-flung expeditions, enabled these two friends to progress science. Attempting to quantify the ‘impact’ of Darwin’s work in his contemporary world – and after all the ‘output’ didn’t appear until 25 years after the voyage, and the impact much later than that – and relate it back to the funding of the research itself, would be a challenge for any REF-like exercise. It also highlights the dangers of trying to be too prescriptive about what might be for the public good. Innovation can turn up in strange places and for strange reasons.

  8. Athene, of course Darwin didn’t have to fill in an impact statement, and a good thing too. I’d certainly much rather be able to sustain my scientific activity on my private income. But I think the image of the gentleman scientist does tend to conceal some interesting aspects of the 19th century contextualisation of science. I think the associations between natural history, the Admiralty and British imperial ambitions are less accidental than your account suggests, for example. It’s not something I know about in detail, but I have the impression that the Royal Society under the presidentship of Joseph Banks became much closer to state policy, and in the major voyages of discovery that were such a feature of the late 18th and early 19th century the causes of natural history, geographical exploration and the expansion of empire were all very closely linked. This must have created an environment in which slipping a natural historian onto a navy vessel wasn’t at all unusual. For a more general contextualisation of science by the mid-19th century, here’s an extract from Prince Albert’s speech opening the Great Exhibition of 1851:

    “So man is approaching a more complete fulfilment of that great and sacred mission which he has to perform in this world. His reason being created after the image of God, he has to use it to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation, and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer nature to his use — himself a divine instrument.

    Science discovers these laws of power, motion and transformation; industry applies them to raw matter which the earth yields us in abundance, but which becomes valuable only by knowledge; art teaches us the immutable laws of beauty and symmetry, and gives to our productions forms in accordance with them.”

    This still seems pretty Baconian – and I suspect this was an influential opinion at a time when science was becoming more professionalised.

    Finally, one can’t help noting that Darwin wouldn’t have had private means if it hadn’t been for his distinguished grandfather (and, at the same time, grandfather-in-law), Josiah Wedgwood, as good an exemplar of the science-based industrialist as one is likely to find.

  9. I hope you didn’t read my post as implying I think it would have been healthy for Darwin to fill in an impact form! I was merely trying to point out just how impossible it would have been for him to do so by any modern criteria. You are of course right that Banks had a lot to do with tying in Empire with Science through his many years as President of the Royal Society (as described in Patricia Fara’s enticingly titled book Sex, Botany and Empire; I don’t think any succeeding President has led such an overtly racy early life). The expansive motivation of Empire did indeed provide a wonderful opportunity for people to slip aboard naval expeditions, facilitating travels for the likes of Darwin and Hooker and incidentally benefitting science. But it was incidental, in so far as the science that benefitted was far from planned for; little more than the collection of new specimens was probably envisaged.

    Nevertheless you gloss over just how difficult it was for scientists to be regarded as respectable gentlemen, and many were far from gentlemen with private means like Darwin. He was indeed financially secure (as you say in large part due to his successful grandparents’ entrepreneurial skills) and also secure as a ‘gentleman’, but Hooker was not. Hooker’s father was in fact a university professor of botany, but this was a very badly paid position and regarded as being of dubious rank in society. Hooker seems to have fought long and hard to make botany respectable (one of the lowest sciences in contemporary views, with mathematics and the physical sciences being much more highly regarded), and for scientists – after all a very recently coined term – to be acceptable to society. Huxley – another scientist whose career started off as a surgeon on board a ship – and Faraday faced similar battles: compare the career trajectories of Faraday, who started off as a bookbinder’s apprentice, with Davy who was his mentor and well-heeled. Though of course Faraday’s total impact, to use that word again, is far the greater he started off as little more than a servant to Davy (‘….the glorious opportunity I enjoy of improving in the knowledge of Chemistry and the Sciences continually determines me to finish this voyage with Sir Humphrey Davy, but if I wish to enjoy those advantages I have to sacrifice much, and though those sacrifices are such as an humble man would not feel, yet I cannot quietly make them.’). Huxley, slightly later in the Victorian era, deeply resented the way he was treated because his roots were lowly, merely middle class, his lack of religious belief counted against him, and he also suffered from lack of financial security (‘To attempt to live by any scientific pursuit is a farce….A man of science may earn great distinction – great reputation – but not bread. He will get invitation to all sorts of dinners and conversaziones, but not enough income to pay his cab hire.’). At least these are battles we don’t still have to fight in the same way.

Comments are closed.