Let's get research basics right 1

October 19, 2007

The research councils' proposal that academics justify their work in economic terms ("Research must show pay-off", October 12) should alarm all those who believe in the Haldane principle under which the councils were founded. This states that research councils should allocate funding without political interference. As the Sainsbury review highlighted, government departmental spending on research has declined almost in step with increases in the science budget. With its constant focus on innovation, the Government seems to be seeking to control research paid for by the research councils rather than funding its own.

The eventual economic gain of investing in broad basic research is well recognised, but there is little evidence that its value can be predicted for individual projects. Let the research councils justify their spending retrospectively, but do not allow them and end-users to allocate funding on the basis of predicted economic impact, especially as not only this, but the end-users themselves, are inherently unpredictable. Philip Esler of Research Councils UK admits of previous funding that "many of the impacts were not necessarily part of the rationale for the specific investment".

On a more practical level, it seems cruel to introduce these new demands on academics just when they were hoping for a less bureaucratic future with the replacement of the research assessment exercise. Undoubtedly a micro-industry of courses and consultants will follow.

Government departments and industry are welcome to fund late-stage, short- term research with reliable economic gain, but let the research councils fund the bedrock on which this is based.

Hilary Leevers, Acting director, Campaign for Science and Engineering, London

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