Science Policy and Impact: Lessons from History

REF, the Science and Innovation Strategy document (S+I) and the Nurse Review of the Research Councils  collectively mean that the UK HE world of science is stuffed full of current policy issues that matter to us all – never mind the concentration of minds arising from an upcoming election followed by a Comprehensive Spending Review of unknown political complexion. It is easy to think that this period is both uncomfortably full of political masters making decisions based on shaky evidence and that scientists now are uniquely pressed to discover the ‘impact’ of their work, indeed to make such impact a primary driver. Of course this latter point simply isn’t true. Any cursory reading around the history of science will demonstrate that scientists have been buffeted by political (or, if you go back far enough, Royal) power and inclination. Patronage is a word rarely heard now (although pork barrel may be its more modern translation) but historically it definitely determined the fate of many careers.

Having a bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously, it so happens there are three history of science books I started reading over Christmas that contain salutary messages as we face the current uncertain funding world (I should add, I have finished none of them yet). In terms of the period it covers, the earliest is The Fellowship by John Gribbin. Starting with Gilbert’s work on magnetism De Magnete published in 1600, it covers the times and aspirations of those who were involved with the foundation and early years of the Royal Society. Whatever challenges we face now, at least we aren’t ducking and diving between political masters on different sides who go to war with each other, or need explicitly to worry about our religious beliefs and observance. Nor do many of us have to accept the only way to get a university education is to become a ‘subsizar’ in a Cambridge College, willing to empty chamber pots to pay one’s keep, as Isaac Newton was alleged to have had to do. Some things do get better (though not all)!

Also amongst my current reading is Jon Agar’s Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. If these days we feel in thrall to political masters whose views we don’t necessarily share, his account of science under Stalin or the Nazis should make us realise things could be an awful lot worse. Although my physics, sitting as it does at the interface with biology, isn’t exactly mainstream nor likely to build a better weapon of mass destruction, at least I don’t fear I will be purged at any moment as a consequence. My political beliefs do not, to the best of my knowledge, determine whether I get funding (although there are those who note the increasing emphasis on ‘place’, as the S+I document puts it, on funding decisions, so perhaps the geography of where I work does. Are we getting a regional science policy by stealth?).

The third book isn’t precisely a history of science book, although that is in some senses its scope. It is a heavy tome (Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin). It is written by the trio of Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie and covers the development of ornithology as a science, starting with a chapter on the discovery of Archaeopteryx. This book is as much about the people who moved the science forward and how they interacted – if you ever wondered how important science networks are, after 400 pages of this book you will be in no doubt – as the birds’ biology. It compellingly demonstrates how much chance and good luck play a part in even, perhaps particularly, the most successful scientists’ lives. Things such as whom you happen to meet, where you live, who lived just before you and kickstarted a field not to mention random job and funding opportunities that turn up at just the right time – or not. These all matter and are beyond one’s control.

But throughout these three books we see how science funding has come and gone and how motivations may vary from the intensely practical to the inherently curious but impractical. If you thought the Royal Society founders were all dilettante gentlemen who had more money than sense, dabbling in a little science to while away the hours, think again. Just as in the slightly later period that Richard Holmes discussed in The Age of Wonder, interest in ‘the heavens’ was driven as much by a need to improve navigation aids as by idle curiosity about those pinpricks of light in the sky. Hooke’s work on springs was part of the challenge of measuring longitude accurately. Newton was one of the early telescope builders: although that is hardly his main claim to fame it was relevant to Newton’s initial election to the Royal Society. These gentleman cared about impact, as we would define it now, a great deal. And that is equally true throughout the twentieth century, although as I pointed out previously,there was an intervening period when impact was seen as undesirable and ungentlemanly behaviour. David Egerton’s Warfare State discusses the way science, science funding and (military) policy-making were intertwined within UK science through most of the twentieth century; Agar makes the same point more generally as it applies around the world.

We may quibble over whether Willetts ‘Eight great technologies’ are the right eight, even whether this is too close to the ‘picking of winners’ that people tend to shudder at, but we cannot be surprised that politicians want to affect what gets done. Our job as scientists is to make sure we fight over what is fundamentally important. That most certainly includes, first and foremost, making a case for investment in science in a way that they can understand (and grasp as a vote-winner!); we need to encourage more serious thought about an ‘industrial policy’ (and that might include encouraging much more industrial R+D, which has been so savaged by our stockmarket’s obsession with short-termism); and we should not be frightened of continuing to defend that class of research that as yet seems to have no demonstrable use.

We should learn from history that we are not uniquely disadvantaged currently and work to make the most of the opportunities the enthusiasm the Treasury currently is expressing offer the scientific community. We should continue to make the case that innovation arises in unexpected ways, ways a Chancellor cannot control but can facilitate. We should also ensure that at every stage the commitment to openness that the Science and Innovation document refers to is constantly kept in mind. As that paper says, the vision it invokes can only be delivered ‘if it is owned and supported by the science and innovation communities in academia and business, and by all those who work alongside them.’ Throwing the evidence-base out of the window when making decisions would be a good way of losing that support. Whitehall should never forget that.

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