Lord Rees on the future of UK research

Haldane unbound would be as dangerous as unchecked utilitarianism, argues the astronomer royal

July 2, 2015
Dale Edwin Murray illustration (2 July 2015)
Source: Dale Edwin Murray

The traditional “compact” that attracts academics into university posts is that in return for their teaching, they can devote part of their time to research in fields of their choice. But how should support for research be allocated?

Science impinges on more and more aspects of our lives, and is substantially state funded. So it is an area where the public, via their elected representatives, quite properly have oversight. When academics extol “freewheeling” research, we risk being accused of arrogantly disregarding our obligations to the public. But there is a good response to that. A significant outcome is more likely to emerge from people who are committed to – even obsessed with – the problem they are tackling. Their choices of project are anything but frivolous: what’s at stake is a big chunk of their lives and their professional reputation.

If you ask scientists what they are working on, you will seldom get an inspirational reply such as “seeking to cure cancer” or “understanding the universe”. They focus on a tiny piece of the puzzle that seems tractable, judging that such an oblique approach will pay off best. Only geniuses – or cranks – try to tackle great problems head-on.

For instance, 45 years ago President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer”. He envisaged this as a national goal, modelled on the Apollo programme, but there was a crucial difference. The science underpinning Apollo – rocketry and celestial mechanics – was already understood. But in the case of cancer, the scientists knew too little to be able to target their efforts effectively.

Furthermore, the impact of discoveries is unpredictable, diffuse and long term. The inventors of lasers in the 1960s used ideas that Einstein had developed 40 years earlier, and couldn’t foresee that their invention would be used in eye surgery and in DVDs. So if we want to optimise the prospects for discovery, what matters most is setting the best framework to attract committed individuals and allowing them to back their own judgement.

But making all research funding “responsive mode” – what you might call an unchecked Haldane principle – could damage the long-term health of our research ecosystem. It might, for instance, result in the concentration of ever greater proportions of the budget in the “golden triangle”, precluding the emergence of world-class research elsewhere. The University of Dundee, for instance, is world class in bioscience, as is the University of Leicester in genetics and in space science. None of this was planned: outstanding young researchers in these fields happened to have jobs there in the 1970s and 1980s, and had the enterprise to build up major groups. It is important that selectivity shouldn’t be so harsh that emergent opportunities are choked off.

Unchecked Haldane might also result in grants being monopolised by senior scientists. Indeed, this is happening. A recent US report revealed that the proportion of National Institutes of Health grant holders under the age of 36 has fallen from 16 per cent in 1980 to 3 per cent today. This reduces the allure of the academy for the ambitious young. Some nerdish types (I’m one myself) will become researchers come what may. But a world-class university must also attract its share of young scientists with flexible talent – the kind who are savvy about their options and aspire to achieve something by the time they are 30.

Then there is the question of whether there should be favoured funding for priority subjects, such as the government’s “eight great technologies”, whose selection involves wider criteria than scientific excellence alone. Academics uneasy about this would be wise to recognise that the public resources allocated for research, matched and followed up by the private sector, will be larger if the money is boosting topics of obvious timeliness and societal benefit that have a political fair wind.

That said, the determination of scientific priorities could be improved. The UK would do well to establish an equivalent of the US’ National Research Council: a publicly funded body controlled by national academies that produces reports on technical and policy issues, and – after wide discussion – reviews on specific fields, recommending priorities. With similar resources and the engagement of the academy, business and non-governmental organisations, the UK’s academies could provide a better informed basis for decision-making.

A final thought: while the larger-scale funding of science relative to the humanities reflects our paymasters’ assumption that it leads to more spin-offs, it is interesting to note that two of the University of Oxford’s most valuable generators of intellectual property were professors of Renaissance English and of Anglo-Saxon. I refer, of course, to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose works now earn billions for the so-called creative industries.

Both men would feel disaffected aliens in today’s audit culture. Their values were the traditional ones of commitment to an institution, to scholarship and to learning for its own sake. Whatever happens, let us hope these ideals won’t become extinct.

Lord Rees of Ludlow is astronomer royal and a former president of the Royal Society. This article has been adapted from a speech he gave at a recent Foundation for Science and Technology meeting on the Haldane principle.

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Article originally published as: Tracing the trajectory between blue skies and the bottom line (2 July 2015)

Reader's comments (1)

All I can say is a hopeful "Hear, hear" but it seems hard to imagine that the academic values of Lewis and Tolkien mentioned will prevail, alas.

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