Fear and secrecy pose a threat to our future

November 26, 2004

Universities must stand firm against intimidation and be more open about their links to business, says Chris Patten

The case for greater funding of tertiary education and research usually concerns its impact on growth. Indeed, I cannot think of a recent occasion when the argument was put in terms other than those of economic utilitarianism. But are we missing something important in narrowing the debate in this way?

In some respects, the non-use of the liberal case for public cherishing of our universities is almost as great a threat to research as chronic underfunding.

I strongly favour collaboration with industry and, naturally, I would like to see greater private investment. To point out that the relationship with the private sector needs to be transparently defined is not to advocate a retreat into ivy-covered pauperdom or exclusive and closeted dependence on the state.

There is the opposition to genetic modification, to research involving animals, to anything that can be caricatured as "playing at God". Unless we are careful in how we put the case for scientific research and are 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.

In the case of animal research, the refusal to accept any hierarchy of life forms leads to fascist tactics by a violent few. The question of animal research is a subject of legitimate debate. Freedom of speech and freedom of association are principles that must be defended, especially by a university. People have a right to protest. To protest peacefully.

At Oxford University, there are projects pioneering treatments to control the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, looking at techniques to "patch" the genetic errors that cause muscular dystrophy, and working on vaccines for HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and childhood meningitis. It would be devastating news for many who suffer from disease if these were halted.

But there is more at risk than the future of biomedical research. To use violence at a university is a serious blow to the basic liberties of a plural society. If we surrender over animal research, what comes next? Will there be attempts to intimidate us to not employ those who belong to a particular country, faith or ethnic group? Will research into some parts of our history be censored as it has been in some countries? Will other sorts of scientific inquiry be choked because of the objections of some group prepared to threaten violence?

Pushing back the boundaries of knowledge is a hallmark of a free and civilised society. There are worries about short-term profit undermining the commitment of universities to curiosity-driven research, that collegiality among scientists could collapse and that proprietary science could threaten the open exchange of knowledge. Yet unless we have in place arrangements that maximise transparency and clarify where responsibility lies, we will give sustenance to those who think, like Erasmus, that commercial activities are synonymous with "lies, perjury, thefts, frauds and deception".

To fail to stand up for the liberal case for universities will help the enemies of science. The threat is not simply a matter of money, though it is true that if universities are starved of public investment, they are likely to place fewer reasonable conditions on the requests of those they turn to for money.

There are many areas of policy where governments, organisations and multinational companies have failed to forge a consensus for rational choices and effective action. Universities should be more active and extrovert in helping to set and meet public agendas, as independent advocates, guardians of evidence and sources of further exploration.

It is curious that universities have been so hesitant in advancing ideas about ourselves and our vision of our own future. The agenda has been set and the debate led by outsiders - governments, politicians, civil servants, journalists and industry.

We should start by championing the reasons for independent universities and research driven by the passion to know more about our world. After all, the extent to which we esteem scholarship says a lot about who we are, the society we have become, and the public and private goods we will be able to hand on to our children.

Weigh all that in the balance today, in Britain and in Europe, and the conclusion is not altogether encouraging - which is not what I would be saying if I were an American.

Chris Patten is chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle universities. This article is based on the Save British Science distinguished lecture he delivered last week.

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