Blue skies here to stay, Esler says

AHRC chief tells angry academic entrepreneurialism is no threat to basic research. Zoe Corbyn reports

May 22, 2008

A research council chief rounded on an academic who criticised his drive to improve the "economic impact" of research during a heated public debate.

The two-hour debate entitled "Is Public Science a Public Good?" was held by the think-tank Demos last week to discuss whether the public should be worried about companies funding university science.

One of the speakers, Philip Moriarty, a professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, argued that the research councils' increased emphasis on economic impact and a stronger focus on links with business was reducing academics' freedom to undertake blue-skies research.

"I am not happy because what I do is fundamental research ... I could not care less if that leads to a device," he said. He added that the "lack of entrepreneurial character" was something research councils saw as "disabling" and needing to be "driven out".

But during the discussion Philip Esler, the chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the knowledge-transfer "champion" for all seven research councils, rose from his front-row audience seat to defend their stance.

"It is not correct to suggest that what we are trying to do is to divert scientists (from fundamental research).

"What we are trying to do is to nudge a proportion of a community into thinking (about how the research can also be used)," he said.

"Professor Moriarty's view - that is the devil's work - I just don't understand it. What is wrong with doing both? ... what we are after is both excellent research plus, where we can get it, impact."

He added that it was "completely spurious" to suggest that economic impact was only about the commercialisation of research. He said that faced with two projects - one on incremental advances in jet engines and another on the possibilities of a tiny but usable quantity of antimatter - any research council panel would choose the latter.

"I don't agree," responded Professor Moriarty, adding that he believed that opposition to the councils' policy was widespread among researchers, although there was reluctance to speak out.

"They feel that if they criticise the research councils it is going to impact on their grant funding," he said.

"Whether that is right or not, certainly, sticking your head above the parapet is something scary."

Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, used the debate to argue that the Government should stop funding university research to allow philanthropists and businesses to fill the gap.

He said: "When the Government funds science, it crowds out the private sector and charities."

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