Brussels, 24 Nov 2004
Chris Patten, the former External Relations Commissioner now Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, has warned that the economic argument for greater spending on higher education and research is 'not the only, nor necessarily the best.'
Mr Patten made the comments while giving the annual Save British Science distinguished lecture in London, UK, on 18 November. He made it clear that he believes Europe should spend more on tertiary education, warning that where the EU15 invests 1.4 per cent of its GDP, the figure in the US is three per cent.
'Concern at the extent to which America outperforms Europe in expenditure on tertiary education and on R&D [research and development] has played a heavy part in Europe's attempt to devise a credible strategy to improve its competitiveness,' said Mr Patten. As for the EU's goal of becoming the world's most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010, he told the audience 'Please don't hold your breath. A re-launch of a rather more realistic strategy can be expected from European heads of government over the next few months.'
In doing so, Europe's leaders could start by examining the record on R&D, he suggested, pointing to the 'massive and rapidly growing gap' in research spending between the EU and US. 'While [lack of investment from] the business sector explains the major part of the difference, public research budgets in Europe are not going to take up the slack. As a proportion of GDP they fell from 0.91 per cent in 1991 to 0.73 per cent in 2000,' said Mr Patten.
'It is interesting that the case for greater funding of both tertiary education and R&D is usually put in terms of the impact on growth,' he continued. 'Indeed, the word 'usually' may be a tad inaccurate. I cannot think of a recent occasion when the argument about universities and research was put in terms other than those of economic utilitarianism.'
Mr Patten accepted that more spending on research and education can sometimes, although by no means always, result in more growth and prosperity, but the economic argument is not open and shut. He urged his audience to 'question whether we are missing something important in narrowing the debate about education and research to an economic calculus.'
'Unless we are careful in how we put the case for scientific research and transparent about how we fund it, we risk further alienating public sympathy with costs that have intellectual, social and human consequences and not just economic ones. The politicisation of stem cell research in the United States is a case in point,' Mr Patten argued.
He also highlighted the many calls for closer links between universities and industry as a way of generating economic growth. 'I strongly favour collaboration between universities and industry [but] to point out that the relationship needs to be carefully and transparently defined is not to advocate [...] exclusive and closeted dependence on the state. I just think we need to debate these issues more openly, because failure to do so increases public suspicion of science and a flight from reason.'
The former Commissioner said that there are also concerns that the commitment of universities to basic curiosity-driven research may be undermined by short-term considerations of profit and quick financial returns. He noted that: 'It is curious that universities - which wrestle with ideas - have been so hesitant to advance ideas about ourselves and to win the argument for our own vision of the future. I hope we will have more confidence in setting out our own case in the years ahead.'
He concluded: 'We could do a lot worse than start by setting out the reasons in a pluralist democracy for independent universities and research driven by the passion always to know just a little bit more about our world.'