Haldane is science’s guardian angel

There is nothing devilish about government oversight of research, but the Haldane Principle checks more sulphurous instincts, says Paul Jump

June 13, 2019
Devil

Dr Faustus’ decision to hand his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures never looked likely to end well.

There are those in the academic community who feel similarly about scientists’ relationship with politicians. Public research funding does not instantly unlock unlimited knowledge, of course – and access to worldly pleasures is blocked by killjoys such as auditors and ethics committees. But public funding certainly has the potential to unlock a lot more knowledge than if research were left to the mercies of rich individuals and profit-driven corporations – especially in the more expensive sciences.

Yet what pain such largesse inflicts on a poor researcher’s soul! All those outcomes and impacts to be predicted and recorded! All those institutional strategies and grand challenges to appear to be addressing! And don’t even mention the research excellence framework or the multiannual review.

It could have been much worse, however, had it not been for an angel masquerading as a Scottish politician, lawyer and philosopher by the name of Richard Burdon Haldane who, a century ago, set out the principle that while politicians are entitled to a level of direction and oversight of research spending, they must keep out of decisions about exactly what and whom to fund.

Or perhaps he didn’t. As our cover feature this week makes clear, the origins of what is known as the Haldane Principle are as murky as that of the Faust story itself. But whatever its aetiology, the principle has come to acquire its own mythical status. So much so, in fact, that it was enshrined in UK law in the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. As the then minister for universities and science Jo Johnson points out in the feature, his concern was that ministerial fervour to implement the industrial strategy could otherwise see the gradual erosion of Haldane: “The last thing I wanted to do was to direct funding according to the latest Number 10 fad.”

Indeed, Johnson voiced similar fears last week in response to the Augar review’s recommendation that tuition fees in England be lowered to £7,500. Johnson’s point was that any extra money the Treasury allocated to universities to compensate for the reduction could easily end up as a politicised “slush fund for the ministerial project du jour”, rather than being left to universities to employ as they saw fit.

There is nothing like having supped at the devil’s table to get to know his tastes.

Those tastes were also on display in Australia last year, with the revelation that Johnson’s then equivalent Down Under, Simon Birmingham, secretly vetoed 11 humanities research projects that had been approved by the Australian Research Council. “I make no apologies for ensuring that taxpayer research dollars weren’t spent on projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities,” he explained at the time.

That defence was rightly dismissed by academics. Clearly, neither politicians nor the general public that they may or may not faithfully represent are best placed to make decisions on the merit of individual projects.

But it is equally outlandish to suggest that all political direction of science is illegitimate. Public funding is not manna from heaven: it comes from a limited pot gathered from taxpayers and allocated according to what governments consider national priorities. That is an obvious point, but it doesn’t always seem to be borne in mind by those who see any limits or conditions on research spending as the work of the devil.

Inevitably, the level of priority that research is afforded depends to some extent on the urgency of the questions that it is considered to be in a position to address, as well as the agendas and industries that it is regarded as able to enhance. And, within the research budget, it seems reasonable for a government to decide, for instance, to redirect more money into climate research; see the lead opinion article for an eloquent and stark account of the task facing the academy in that arena.

Another relevant article is our analysis highlighting the differences between disciplinary weightings in different countries, based on staff data collected for Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings. Universities in Asia tend to have a much higher proportion of academics working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and that is clearly a result of governmental prioritisation of those areas for commercial reasons. You can argue about how sensible it is to skew the research base so heavily in one direction, but allocation decisions are simply the stuff of government.

There will always be a level of mutual irritation between academics, motivated to follow their own research interests wherever they lead, and politicians, who want to see their priorities directly addressed; and aren’t convinced by the argument that the best results for everyone are achieved in the former scenario. In such circumstances, the Haldane Principle is probably the best compromise possible. Even if it is not always strictly observed, it remains a stern gargoyle warding ministers away from the sulphurous doorway within which the grant committee makes its deliberations.

paul.jump@timeshighereducation.com

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