Focus on deliverables concerns scientists

October 26, 2007

Poll reveals science's frustration over Government's concentration on economic outcomes of research. Zoe Corbyn reports. Most scientists think the Government, research councils and universities are restricting academic research by focusing too much on its economic and social outcomes, according to a survey.

The survey of scientists, conducted by the Institute of Ideas, also indicates divisions among scientists over whether the growth in ethical checks and balances is a good thing. In all 204 scientists responded to the online survey conducted for the Battle of Ideas festival to be held in London this weekend.

When asked whether the Government was taking "too instrumental an approach towards scientific research in general", 84 per cent said that it was. Over half of the self-selected respondents also rated as "too instrumental" the approach by research councils (62 per cent) and universities (47 per cent).

"There is a lot of pent-up anger and frustration among scientists as to the level of demand for deliverables - economic or otherwise - as opposed to whether it is excellent science," said Tony Gilland, science and society director at the Institute of Ideas. "These polices need to be thrashed out and debated properly rather than rushed through without a lot of thought and discussion."

Regarding knowledge transfer the study showed around double the number of scientists thought the Government and research councils placed too much emphasis on the wealth-creation agenda than thought it placed too little emphasis on it, while universities' emphasis was generally thought to be "about right".

The study also found that research relevant to government policy priorities, such as obesity, climate change and terrorism, is seen to be dominating the agenda of Government and the research councils "too much".

Mr Gilland said respondents were seeing universities "in a more positive light", whereas the research councils were seen as "supplicant" and "compliant".

"We have pinpointed that research councils have played a mediating role and gone too far along the track of trying to deliver economic impact and benefit as opposed to saying science doesn't deliver in that way," he said.

He added that the scientific community should promote its work on its own merits rather than because it could "cure cancer" or "improve the economy". "There is a nervousness about admitting that," he said.

Mr Gilland added the amount of ethical regulation and oversight was also creating angst among scientists. The survey showed about equal numbers of respondents thought that levels of ethical checks and balances were either "about right" (40 per cent) or had "gone too far" (41 per cent). Only 10 per cent though they had not gone far enough.

Responding to the survey results, a spokeswoman from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said the Government had a strong commitment to science, research and technology and was keen to promote public engagement and dialogue. "Over the past decade we have been able to double the size of the science budget, as public funding of science brings benefits to both the economy and to society, such as improved productivity, a healthier nation and better public services. An emphasis on knowledge transfer and economic impact is not at the expense of science funding, it helps justify increases in that funding," she said.

Battle of Ideas festival, October -28, Royal College of Art, London, www.battleofideas.org.uk

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