Blue skies need vigilant champions

September 8, 2000

The wealth of good things at this week's British Association Festival of Science, in London to mark the millennium, reminds us of the golden age of scientific discovery in which we are living. The event has been created as an interaction between science and the arts. In Britain in the year 2000, science's cultural and economic role allows it to look the arts in the eye as at least an equal partner.

But science's importance is not matched by structures and systems that reflect its position in the modern world. As Sir David Weatherall has said in these pages, one key gap is impartiality. He points out that in many areas of biotechnology and genetics, where massive public issues arise, there are few, if any, disinterested academics with no financial interests to distort their role as independent advisers to government and the public.

Nor is government a perfect research sponsor. Richard Lacey, the Leeds University BSE expert, should have been supported by the government, not marginalised, for his radical suggestions on how the disease was transmitted. Government departments have also been prime users of contract clauses to prevent, delay or censor academic papers. Such clauses are too often used to fit findings to agenda.

At the BA today, a group of unions with members in universities and government research laboratories is launching a programme to highlight abuses occurring in British science (page 17). They claim that unfettered research for its own sake has all but died out in Britain as short-term priorities and programmes have taken over.

There is too little disinterested science and too much pressure for results, in some cases at the cost of accuracy or originality. More people who are funded properly to do research just because it is interesting are needed urgently. And paradoxically, it is such scientists who sometimes spawn the innovation that creates a new industry rather than just another product development.

The unions' demands - for dual support, peer review and freedom to publish - sound innocuous, but protecting them is a complex matter. It is not, for example, clear how the Conservatives' proposals to do away with block grant funding (page 3) would affect research.

As the newspaper for the academic profession, The THES offers those who are concerned that research integrity may be being jeopardised a forum in which to air their worries. Do contact us at the email address above and we will be happy to investigate.

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