No strings research

December 8, 1995

Whatever the reasons for top scientists working on BSE at the Institute of Animal Health apparently coming under threat, the wider public must be wondering how essential research on a possibly life-threatening disease can be so vulnerable.

There are powerful vested interests with motives for obfuscation. With the public anxious and the food industry jittery, those who distribute Government research money, whether through ministries or research councils, could hardly be expected to admit it if they were cutting cash because the research was inconvenient. Similarly those threatened by cuts can be expected to adduce all kinds of motives - the more embarrassing the better - to those withdrawing funds.

What the arguments this week nicely illustrate, however, are some of the points made at last week's conference "Athenaeum to Antithesis" on academic accountability, organised by the Office of Public Management and sponsored by The THES and the Independent.

At the conference Alan Howarth, former minister for higher education in the present Government, now celebrated defector to the Labour party, lifted the veil on Whitehall's attitudes to academic freedom and to pure research in ways former ministers seldom do. He warned the academic community that, though it might be thought the proper function of Government to protect academic freedom in universities, those who looked to Government to provide the conditions in which it might flourish were too optimistic. It was also, he said, "unwise to assume that the generality of MPs are going to leap to the defence of academic freedom unless constantly reminded of its importance". Whitehall, he added, wanted to control and direct and had little interest in the academic space (to use the term chosen by Irish president Mary Robinson recently). He was particularly unhappy with the move of science funding to the Department for Trade and Industry, which, in his view, demonstrated Whitehall's lack of interest in pure research.

Where academic freedom is concerned, he has come to the same conclusion as fellow former minister Robert Jackson (below), that the best hope is multiple funding. "The more diverse your funding, the more sure it is you are not going to be subject to the kind of oppressive control you loathe." Here are two former Tory higher education ministers warning universities that they are losing their independence.

The BSE row highlights the importance of that independence. If the work is interesting, if the scientists wish to pursue it regardless of the views of particular funders, they need to be employed by institutions which are not too dependent on any funder.

This is why research must be located in universities and, furthermore, in universities which are in robust financial health. Only then is there the possibility of finding money to support the work of those who, to quote the 1988 Education Reform Act, "question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions", when their original backers suddenly find themselves unaccountably short of the readies.

The Government is foolish not to realise that it is only when research into highly emotive issues is seen to be independent that the public can realistically be expected to have confidence in the findings. Pulling more and more research into the market-dominated ambit of the DTI is not reassuring.

Second, the Government should take more account of research like that of Brian Wynne at Lancaster which has shown that public scepticism about official reassurances does not arise from ignorance about science so much as from a realistic understanding of how safety regulations are in fact applied in daily life.

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