Selling science short

December 1, 1995

Scientific research is in danger because neo-liberals have espoused central planning. In a recent article, Simon Jenkins (THES, October 10) highlighted one of the most puzzling aspects of British Government policy since 1979: that it has been driven by neo-liberal ideas about the decentralisation of power, yet in the public sector control has been concentrated in the hands of central government to an extent that would previously have been regarded as unacceptable.

As an illustration, Jenkins points to the fate of the University Grants Committee, a relatively independent buffer organisation that was forced into a more interventionist role and then replaced by the Higher Education Funding Council. The latter is now operating largely as an agent of government and charged with managing higher education in order to meet national policy goals.

However, Jenkins could equally well have used the research funding councils as an example of this trend. In a paper entitled University Research - Has it a Future?, John Griffith, emeritus professor of public law at London University, has recently traced the changes in these bodies from their relative autonomy in relation to the Government, and responsiveness to the research community, towards a new regime that he refers to as "the command economy" exemplified, for example, in the Foresight programme.

Under this new regime the function of the funding councils is to sponsor research that is designed to service United Kingdom plc. Thus, the Economic and Social Research Council now defines its aim as: "to provide high quality research and data to help the Government, businesses and the public to understand and improve the UK's economic performance and social well-being."

Closely associated with this redefinition of mission, there has been a shift towards the specification of particular research areas as of high priority for funding. There has also been pressure on all applicants for funds to negotiate the value of what they are likely to produce with "users". In short, the Rothschild model of contract-based applied research is being extended to research funded by research councils, with Government as the main contracting agency.

In the light of this, following Griffith, we might reasonably ask whether university research has a future? What is at issue here is not the prospects for research in institutions which call themselves universities, but rather the future of that type of research which is distinctive to universities: research concerned with advancing knowledge about the world, as opposed to meeting the immediate or strategic needs of government and business.

Of course, there are those who deny the value of basic research, and there are also those who reject the distinction between basic and applied work. In this context, it may be of interest to remind ourselves of a previous occasion when these issues were debated, not least because the political configuration of the promoters and critics of the central planning of scientific research was very different then from what it is today.

In the late 1930s and 1940s there emerged a group of scientists who argued that science should be geared to the solution of social and economic problems. For them, its major justification was precisely that it was the most powerful source of solutions to those problems. This development was promoted partly by the experience of the First World War and the depression, leading to a recognition that science could produce destruction and misery as easily as progressive improvements in the conditions of human life.

These advocates of planning also regarded modern science as having outgrown earlier forms of organisation, and as suffering from substantial inefficiencies, both internally and in its application to problems of production and welfare.

Moreover, the new scale and expense of research in some areas of physics meant that, in their view, future scientific progress could only occur if there were large-scale state sponsorship. For the most part, the politics of these scientists was of the Left, and they were impressed by the Soviet Union's attempts to harness the forces of science for social development. They recognised that "science can never be administered as part of the civil service", but insisted that there was considerable scope for central planning, this to be carried out by those with a wide knowledge of science as well as an awareness of social and economic needs. Areas of priority were to be identified, though a proper balance was to be maintained between basic and applied research. The most comprehensive statement of this position is to be found in J. D. Bernal's book The Social Function of Science.

An influential opponent of this enthusiasm for the centralised planning of science was Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian scientist who had a distinguished career in Germany before emigrating to Britain when the Nazis came to power. His views are best summed up in a seminal article entitled "The Republic of Science", in which he argued that scientists should be treated as independent producers, that they must be left to make their own individual decisions about what topics to investigate, when, and how. Only then, he claimed, would their work be coordinated in an efficient manner that advances both knowledge and its technological applications.

His argument was modelled, of course, on neo-classical economic ideas about the operation of markets and the problems inherent in command economies; notably Hayek's point that the knowledge required to organise the production, distribution and exchange of goods is simply not available to any one person or group.

However, like some other neo-liberals, Polanyi saw the free market as only a special case of a more general phenomenon, what he refers to as "social coordination by mutual adjustment", which is essential to a free society. Here too his thinking was close to that of Hayek, who was as much opposed to attempts at planning science as he was to economic planning.

In the republic of science, then, according to Polanyi, consensus of judgement and an effective coordination of activity are produced not on the basis of some overall view of scientific development taken by a government agency, or even by eminent scientists, but by the independent decisions of practising scientists who have overlapping areas of specialised competence.

He argues that there is no inherent threat to science in its being funded by governments, but that the latter must view the autonomy of academic institutions in the same light as the independent administration of justice. Any attempt to plan scientific research centrally will distort it and could damage the advancement of knowledge and eliminate its benefits; just as political interference in the work of the judiciary damages the cause of justice. He reports an occasion, in the summer of 1945, when the University Grants Committee sought to take a role in coordinating scientific research by identifying priorities among research areas.

He comments that, fortunately, this intervention seemed to have little influence on the work of the scientific community. The situation today is very different, not least because universities and scientists are in a much weaker position in relation to government, as a result of greatly increased financial dependence.

The priorities for research are now increasingly being set outside of the scientific community, and in a way that would have appalled even Bernal and his colleagues. What is particularly ironic, however, is that the Government which is currently building an apparatus for the planning of scientific research is also one that trumpets the value of freedom and its belief that private enterprise is more effective than government control. It seems that the lesson Polanyi taught has not been learned even by those who claim to share his commitments.

Martyn Hammersley is professor of educational and social research, The Open University.

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