Abandon ‘out-of-date’ Haldane principle on research priorities

Select committee says it’s time for ‘transparent and rigorous’ debate on publicly funded work. Melanie Newman reports

July 23, 2009

The long-standing principle that dictates that decisions about how to spend research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians is “dead and out of date”, the chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee has said.

Phil Willis, speaking at the launch of a major report on the future of science policy, said that rather than referring to the Haldane principle as though it were “set in a tablet of stone”, scientists and ministers should debate how best to manage the conflicting demands of government policy and the need for curiosity-driven research.

The Haldane principle, as it was interpreted by John Denham, the former Universities Secretary, holds that researchers should determine detailed priorities while ministers set over-arching research strategy.

But the report published on 23 July, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, says the Government cannot support the principle in this form while at the same time promoting science and engineering as a means of economic recovery and growth in the regions.

“The time is ripe for an unambiguous rationalisation of the two concepts,” it says. “Researchers, industry, regional and national policymakers and the public have a right to know on what basis research funding is distributed both nationally and regionally; the rationale for funding decisions should be transparent and rigorous.”

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, called the current situation a “fudge” that allowed the Government to pretend that it was not influencing research spending when in fact it was.

The 2009 Budget required the research councils to make £224 million in savings by cutting administration costs and “refocusing spend on new research priorities”. The result was a concentration of funding in specific research areas.

In this process, the Government was not dictating “detailed decisions”, but it was not merely providing “over-arching strategy either” – it was doing something in between, the report says.

“These ‘savings’ are in reality a strategic influencing of research funding streams… the Government should communicate clearly what it is doing and not label them as something they are not.”

Mr Willis said that Mr Denham had repeatedly refused him permission to view, in confidence, copies of the Government’s letters to research councils detailing their budget allocations. The committee deemed this “unacceptable”.

“Without seeing the science budget allocation letters, we are forced to speculate that the Government has exerted inappropriate influence over the research councils,” the report says.

The time has come for the Haldane principle to be replaced by a new framework that “adds transparency and rigour” to the relationship between Government and the research community, it concludes.

“It is important that the diversity of relationships between Government and the various bodies it funds to do research are included under a broad set of principles. We recommend that the Council for Science and Technology be commissioned to carry out this work.”

David Edgerton, professor of the history of science and technology at Imperial College London, welcomed the report.

He said: “I am delighted that the committee has seriously engaged with history and challenged the myths that have riddled government policy. The myth of the Haldane principle has been used to give the dignity of antiquity to various policy approaches in the past five decades, but there is no Haldane principle and never has been.”

As well as its comments about the Haldane principle, the select committee’s report stresses the importance of the independence of government scientific advisers.

It refers to an incident earlier this year involving David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

When it became widely known that he had written a paper for a scientific journal months earlier equating the dangers of taking the drug ecstasy to those of horse-riding, Professor Nutt was criticised by Jacqui Smith, who was then Home Secretary, who said that she was “surprised and profoundly disappointed” by the article. He was defended robustly by Sir Michael Rawlins, the former chairman of the ACMD.

Noting that John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, did not express public or private support for the scientist in the line of fire, the report says that he should have written or spoken to Professor Nutt “letting him know that support was being provided”.

“In situations where a scientific advisory committee chairman or member is or might be threatened for political reasons, support should be offered by the Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser or the Government Chief Scientific Adviser,” the report says.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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