The Haldane principle is an unhelpful myth that "bedevils" discussions of research policy, an academic has claimed.
David Edgerton, Hans Rausing professor at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College London, told a British Academy debate this week that the invocation of the Haldane principle was one of many "tedious commonplaces" that prevent a "grown-up" discussion of research policy and show a "stunning forgetfulness" about the past.
The principle - commonly understood to hold that decisions about how to spend research funds should be made by researchers, not politicians - has been a focus for debate in recent weeks following controversy over the Arts and Humanities Research Council's funding for research relating to the prime minister's "Big Society" concept.
Professor Edgerton told the event, titled Independence At What Price? The Haldane Principle - Past, Present and Future, that far from calling on politicians to stay out of decisions about research funding, Lord Haldane's 1918 report on the "machinery of government" had called for the creation of an independent ministry overseeing general research to ensure that government policy was fully evidence based.
Professor Edgerton said the Haldane principle had first been invoked in the early 1960s, and had been "constantly changing" since then. The idea that general research should be out of ministers' hands had been violated "many times", he added.
It was unrealistic to think that academics had ever lived in a world where government money came "without important strings attached", he said.
Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy and emeritus professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, agreed that Lord Haldane "must be turning in his grave at the uses to which his name has been put".
He said it was interesting that researchers had felt the need to invent a historical principle to protect academic freedom, but it was important that the principle was nuanced enough to acknowledge the legitimate interest that government sometimes had in research funding.
"If there is a major concern about climate change, it is legitimate for government to devote some thought to the structure of that research. It is not particularly useful to have absolute Chinese walls between government and academics," he said.
It was also important not to lose sight of other threats to academic freedom, such as pressure from business or repressive foreign governments that donate funding to universities, he added.