Misplaced pressure

July 5, 1996

Rebel scientist Terence Kealey's failure to win over a well-informed audience at a debate this week in London (page 44) by arguing that government funding of science does more harm than good (and that industry would look after it all anyway) is not surprising. What is interesting is how far such arguments now seem quixotic, even, as fellow speaker Lewis Wolpert put it, bizarre. Thatcherism has truly lost its bite. Unfortunately it has not yet been replaced by a coherent strategy for the country's research development.

The BSE fiasco has helped to underline the inappropriateness of industrial control of research agendas, should such underlining be needed. The vendetta the food industry has waged for years against academics like Richard Lacey, who questioned its assertions, and universities like Leeds, which employed him, should be a horrid warning to those who think industry and the market can be relied on to ask difficult questions and support those who come up with uncomfortable answers. Even if Lacey's fear had been eventually found to be misplaced, this is not the kind of pressure scientists should be subjected to. Rigorous argument, attempts to disprove their findings yes, attempts to suppress, no. Leaving the research agenda up to industry (because that is effectively what is being argued for) is not a good idea.

It is a good idea for industry to take more notice of basic research and to get better at using it. But that is not the same as expecting it to pay for the kind of research that has no obvious application, indeed no obvious outcome. There is no market for the unknown. With no evident beneficiaries, it can only be the taxpayer who foots the bill for basic research.

If this country is to remain in the premier league of nations in a world dominated by knowledge-based industries, we must maintain our right of entry to the international research community on equal terms. One of the scandals in higher education at present, little regarded because so much else is difficult also, is the woeful lack of support for research and for research students. This is increasingly closing research as a career option to talented people without money. The long apprenticeship, the lack of grants and loans, the insecurity of short contracts, make a research career a luxury. And this week comes a further twist. The Medical Research Council is to withdraw support for intercalated research years for medical and dental students.

Fortunately people are still willing to undertake research training but we should not rely on so discriminatory a system to secure the country's long-term research future. It is time the Government listened, for example, to the insistent warnings of the pharmaceutical industry, that research training in Britain is faltering. It is time the Labour party stopped treating the research issue as an elitist plot. This is not a higher education matter. It is a matter of long-term investment in the country's economic future.

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