Show me the money: the final word on science funding
There’s a bit of a stir at the moment with regards to cuts in science funding. Of course, those with a vested professional interest will want more money, and some with no interest in science will see it as a publicly funded gravy train. Sensible policy lies somewhere inbetween.
I don’t see much point in trying to convince people who take an aggressive anti-science funding stance. They are probably the same people who divert any online comment thread towards a comparison with Hitler’s Germany. As long as they aren’t making the decisions, they can hold whatever views they like.
The issue of funding ties in with the supposed debate about whether science should be publicly subsidised if it has no immediately obvious economic benefit. In defence of the economic value of speculative science, there have been two main trump cards; the invention of the laser and the internet, neither of which needs any hyperbole in terms of economic impact.
On the other hand, two data points do not make a trend. Of course there are other examples, but are lasers and the internet truly representative? A huge amount of pure science research will never find a financially viable application for the simple reason that it’s not what academic scientists are generally motivated or trying to do. As pointed out by Philip Moriarty in this article from 2008, if scientists want to carry out research for industry, that’s where they’ll be.
Efforts to encourage publicly funded scientists to engage more closely with business through jointly funded research initiatives between the public and private sector are fine, but shift the balance in research from the interesting to the profitable.
There is also a question as to how successful these initiatives actually are. A report from the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge, Exploding the Myths of UK Innovation Policy (summarized by Roger Highfield on the New Scientist’s S Word blog.) On the idea that “university research is the key source of technology and innovation”, the report doesn’t mince its words:
“University IP does have a role to play, but its effect onlocal and national economic development is modest inthe short to medium term. The over-glamorised notionof the university boffin as the prime source of inventionsthat can rebuild the UK’s scientific industrial base isseriously misleading. Instead, we must ensure thatgreater attention is paid to helping all entrepreneurialstart-ups, especially spin-outs from research intensivecompanies.”
I’m not going to argue, because I think it’s wrong to measure the value of science in terms of pure, immediate and measurable financial gain and agree with the report that it’s better for specialised startups, rather than universities, to carry out R+D under contract to larger tech companies.
Aside from the broader, non-fiscal value of science to society, what people don’t see is the deal academics make when they come into the job. In return for the freedom and funding to pursue their own research, the very best scientists, working at the cutting edge, teach what they know. Science is not just knowledge- or intellectual property- but a way of thinking which should be nurtured in every generation. It’s not necessarily something you can measure in terms of immediate economic benefit, unless you asses the economic contribution of science graduates as a proportion of society as a whole.
Science in the UK has a fantastic reputation, but it’s built on a legacy from the last 350 years. It’s blindingly obvious that the biggest discoveries are unexpected, so if you only fund research with known outcomes then you take the UK out of the top level of the game. Government has to take a long term view and invest to keep science out of the pocket of big business, to maintain this incredible resource indefinitely.
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