The grass may be green somewhere, but the blue skies here look pretty dark

The science Interwebz here in the UK have been abuzz today with reaction to Vince Cable’s statements on this morning’s Radio 4 Today programme (listen here). Cable’s remarks were a trail to a speech he is delivering today, his first major one on science since the election, at Queen Mary College London. (For non-UK readers: Cable, a Liberal Democrat, is the Business Secretary in the centre-right Conservative Lib-Dem coalition government and is thus the Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for UK public funding of science).

General reaction has not been positive. Here is a quote from one astute analysis of the speech, from Cardiff astrophysicist Peter Coles, aka the blogger “Telescoper”

“Of course there are the obligatory platitudes about the quality of the UK’s scientific research, a lot of flannel about the importance of “blue skies” thinking, before [Cable] settles on the utilitarian line favoured by the Treasury mandarins who no doubt wrote his speech for him. Greater concentration of research funding into areas that are “theoretically outstanding” (judged how?) or “commercially useful” (when?). In fact one wonders what the point of this speech was, as it said very little that was specific except that the government is going to cut science. We knew that already.

The line of Cable’s speech Coles is referring to, and which has received a lot of attention, is:

”..there is no justification for taxpayers’ money [supporting] research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”

You will note that the word “curiosity” does not appear there. I wonder if politicians would grasp that curiosity tends to be a rather more meaningful word (at least to most scientists) than either “theoretically outstanding” – after all, we already have an entire grant system directed at funding the most “outstanding” projects – or that tired managerial favourite “excellent”

Roger Highfield, writing in the New Scientist, makes the telling point that Cable has said little different to what UK science ministers have been saying for the last three decades. But the political discomfort with the “un-directedness” of scientific discovery goes back far further than that. A famous quote which is often used to sum up this kind of “But what is it for?” mind-set is:

“I don’t care what makes the grass green”

This line dates back to the 1950s and is generally attributed to American industrialist Charles E Wilson (1890-1961) – aka “Engine Charlie” – during his stint (1953-7) as Secretary of State for Defence in the Eisenhower administration, prior to which he had been the long-time CEO of General Motors. Wilson was, as you might infer from the above remark, known for his lack of enthusiasm for “blue sky research”.

I came across Wilson’s name in an article that we have just published in Physiology News, and which I would highly recommend. The article is by Professor Tim Biscoe, former head of the Physiology Department at UCL and later Vice-Provost of UCL and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. Tim’s article is a fascinating history of the idea of basic research. Here I want to highlight a bit of his piece which bears on the perennial question of whether one can actually identify research which will have “impact” later – either economic, or in terms of its influence on the research field (which might have something to do with “theoretically outstanding”).

Now. most scientists think you can’t predict this kind of thing.

While most politicians, and their civil servants, seem to believe you can – at least when they are trying to decide where to cut.

Tim Biscoe tells us it is “Not a new problem”. He goes on:

“A thorough discussion of the problem was given more than 30 years ago by JH [Julius] Comroe and RD [Robert] Dripps in their The Top Ten Clinical Advances in Cardiovascular-Pulmonary Medicine and Surgery [1]. Another important source is JH Comroe, 1977 [2]. Comroe and Dripps were responding to a US Defence Department Report, Project Hindsight, published in 1966-69.”

[A quick bit of background: Project Hindsight was a comparison of then recently developed (i.e. in the 60s) US weapon systems with systems of similar function in use 10-20 years earlier. The analysis suggested that improvements to the systems were primarily the result of engineering and technological advances made by the defence contractors (companies) and not the results of academic research. However, Hindsight had of course deliberately concentrated on systems which shared a “common scientific and technological base” with the older systems. A summary can be found here] .

Back to Tim Biscoe:

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“Comroe and Dripps wrote:

“The nation’s medical research policy should be based on more than an analysis of weapons development by the Department of Defence and on informal ‘let me give you an example’ anecdotal arguments by concerned scientists, though examples are necessary”.

They defined research as basic “when the investigator, in addition to observing and measuring, attempts to determine the mechanisms responsible for the observed effects”. They discussed clinical orientation; where the research was done and by whom; the role of contract-supported or committee-directed research; lags between initial discovery and application; and more. Their methodology was to ask 90 physicians and surgeons to select their top ten clinical advances. [Comroe & Dripps] screened more than 6000 articles relating to those advances, picked more than 3400 for tabulation in the report, and of these selected 663 key articles with the help of consultants.

Of the 663 articles, 41.6% sought knowledge for the sake of knowledge unrelated to a subsequent clinical advance, and 61.5% described basic research dealing with mechanisms rather than products. Of the key research, 67.4% was done in colleges and universities.”

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Comroe was a pulmonary physiologist and Dripps an anaesthetist, hence their choice of cardiovascular-pulmonary medicine/surgery as the area for their investigation. A useful introduction to, and overview of, Comroe & Dripps’ work can be found in an article they wrote for Science in 1976, “Scientific Basis for the Support of Biomedical Science”, which can be read here.

The following paragraph, near the start of the Science article, rang some bells with me:

“Our interest in this project began in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson said, “Presidents… need to show more interest in what the specific results of research are – in their lifetime, and in their administration. A great deal of basic research has been done . . but I think the time has come to zero in on the targets-by trying to get our knowledge fully applied. . . We must make sure that no lifesaving discovery is locked up in the laboratory [Italics ours].”

Now, imagine you were to substitute the word “money-making” for “lifesaving”. And then look at Vince Cable’s speech, which recapitulates what British governments of any political stripe have been saying for the last three decades.

Plus ca change,  it seems, plus c’est la meme chose.
Or, alternatively, and in perhaps the kind of vernacular LBJ might have favoured:

If the idea that you could tell in advance just what science was going to be important later was a bunch of bulllshit then, then it’s just as much of a bunch of bullshit now.

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PS Another analysis of the history of the debate on blue skies research can be found here.

[1] Comroe JH & Dripps RD, The Top Ten Clinical Advances in Cardiovascular-Pulmonary Medicine and Surgery, 1977, DHEW Publication No. (NIH) 78-1521, vols 1 and 2.

[2] Comroe JH (1977). Retrospectroscope, Insights into Medical Discovery, Von Gehr Press, CA; [a compilation of a series of articles that first appeared in the American Review of Respiratory Disease between 1975-77]

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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8 Responses to The grass may be green somewhere, but the blue skies here look pretty dark

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    What an excellent (if depressing) post, Austin. Thanks for drawing attention to the Physiology News piece by Biscoe.
    I suppose that scientific research is like education – the government cannot resist tinkering and interfering, so that now at schools in the UK there is so much league table “gaming” and admin etc for teachers, not to mention the dreaded National Curriculum, that when do the students learn stuff, and when do the teachers teach vocationally? I feel quite passionate about this because I remember the education I received – not that brilliantly thrilling or imaginative, but basically “OK”. And having children myself, I can see the difference, n years on.
    You are saying that science has always been victimised in this way, in that politicians and governments have wanted to have observable “value for money” ie “useful things they can do” with the science. It is such a pity that they cannot appreciate innovation and ideas (creativity) for their own sake. One example often given is monoclonal antibodies – which were essentially a discovery via basic research whose application came later. I do think that anyone in receipt of a salary needs to be productive by some indicator or other, rather than sitting around playing on the computer all day, but being productive does not have to mean “coming up with money making schemes”, as you so rightly say.

  2. Austin Elliott says:

    The sad thing is that it is so obvious that you cannot predict the future successes. It has been a commonplace among scientists, and most commentators outside politics, since before Comroe and Dripps.

    Somewhere or other I have a book of the scripts of  some of Alistair Cooke’s old Letters From America, including one from February 1972 when President Nixon had just "declared an all-out frontal assault on cancer". Cook pokes gentle fun at this idea with examples of how well-known discoveries were built on things that had no clear purpose when they were done. His main example is Charles Huggins’ 1966 Nobel Prize for prostate cancer treatment being dependent on unrelated stuff like the work between the wars that identified, first phosphatase activity, and then acid phosphatase activity (which is derived from the prostate and was the earliest known measurable chemical marker for a cancer).

    Agree about monoclonal antibodies as an example. There are also great examples of things not being patented because the parent institution’s patent people thought it was too obscure and far from real-world application, and thus not worth the bother. You can sort of see why, since (in my limited experience) it is incredibly laborious patenting things, even if the University has a well set-up process in place. It costs a lot of money and time – and I don’t just mean time for the University IP people. One of my former Heads of Department (who was very into industrial links and commercialization) used to joke that one of Stanford University’s top three earning patents was actually the one for the logo and word “Stanford” on their sweatshirts, rather than some high-powered computer or biotech invention or process.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

     Nice job, Austin. 
    Kieron Flanegan made another interesting point about the potential downside of Universities being too aggressive about pursuing IP:

    Again UK universities already spend significant sums of money patenting their inventions, including many which would probably not be deemed worthy of the cost of IP protection in industry. Companies say that aggressive IP strategies on the part of universities can be a serious barrier to the kind of longer-term and continuous interaction which is most likely to lead to significant knowledge exchange.

    I don’t know of examples of the former but I have heard tell (confidentially) of the latter.

  4. Maxine Clarke says:

    Interesting points about IP/patents, Austin and Stephen. Perhaps another example of a rule seeming like a good idea to those who make them, but those people have no practical experience of the profession or practice of those they are making the rules about, hence lots of unforeseen (and indeed, negative) consequences.

  5. Austin Elliott says:

    The tech transfer set-ups in Univs are expensive, Maxine. The people they employ are not on scrabble wages – typically the senior ones are hired from industry, presumably at comparable salaries, and the mid-level ones are ex-postdocs. There are also sometimes quite a lot of them. It is not uncommon to hear academics asking if these offices make anything like what they cost.

    We had some debate on this in Physiology News a while back, see this article and the follow-up correspondence here.

  6. Pingback: Settling in | Not ranting – honestly

  7. Tim Biscoe says:

    Austin Elliott is kind about my piece in Physiology News. But I am re-iterating there old established arguments. Sadly, they have to be re-iterated because the Whitehall folks seem to be so ignorant of past debates.

    Especially important is the argument for pursuing curiosity, so beautifully expressed by Hardy in A Mathematicians Apology. And so assiduously ignored by our political classes. Without curiosity most of the great advances in understanding would never have occurred. It is surely well known that Faraday would not have investigated electro-magnetic induction unless he had been curious. That curiosity changed the world for ever and the exploitation by industries and governments must surely have paid for all research done since. There is much to say about these problems and much has been summarised in Physiology News and elsewhere; and usually ignored.

  8. Austin says:

    Thanks for commenting, Tim. As you say, it is dispiriting to see how ignorant our political masters and their officials are of history. The line that springs to mind is the Santayana one about:

    “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

    Whether this is due to “turnover” (new people with short memories) or to wilful ignorance I don’t know – I suspect an element of both. It can’t be just turnover, as past evidence that favours politicians’ particular ideological biases typically seems to get recalled quite well by them and their apparatchiks.