Warm words but cold, hard choices ahead

Yesterday morning I was at the Royal Institution to hear David Willetts, the UK Minister for Science, outline the new government’s policy on science.

David Willetts at the Royal Institution - July 2010

His speech comes at a time when the government is issuing all sorts of warnings about the parlous state of the British economy. Every minister appears to be under instruction to soften up the populace for the economic pain that has to be inflicted in order to get UK plc back to reasonable health*.

But the Minister for Science has long had a reputation as a man of preternatural intelligence — he is widely, and perhaps even a little fondly, known as David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts — and he did not disappoint. He made some very interesting remarks on science policy. There have been several reports on the speech already, for example in New Scientist and The Guardian, but I wanted to give a scientist’s perspective.

First, of course, there were the ominous warnings about the massive size of the UK debt following the ravages of the credit crunch. Although the US, France and Germany have all recently boosted investment in science as part of a policy to re-ignite their economies, there is little prospect of this in the UK because we are significantly worse off. As Willetts put it:

“I recognise that countries like the US, Canada and France have reacted to recession by spending more on science. But their public finances are in much better shape than ours. The US government’s deficit as a percentage of GDP in 2009 was 10.2 per cent. Canada’s was two per cent, France’s six per cent, Germany’s 1.6 per cent. Ours was 11.1 per cent.”

That argument is not entirely convincing to me since the difference between US and UK deficits seems marginal. Willetts did not directly address the threat of a potential loss of scientific talent to North America.

However, I’m afraid I’m not equipped to tackle that argument in any detail, though it seems to me that we scientists need to take a much greater interest in this area. There is no doubt that governments of all hues are always going to want to see the economic impact of the public money that is spent on science and technology. The real debate is about how that impact is judged. I was at least encouraged that Willetts has a much more informed and sophisticated view of this issue than the erratic Simon Jenkins.

Willetts is quite naturally concerned about the return that the government gets for its spending on research but he seems to have a better understanding than his predecessor, Lord Paul Drayson (himself a very committed minister), of the value of blue-skies research. His commitment is not the least bit sentimental. While acknowledging the international esteem and national pride that derives from the UK’s share of Nobellists and its impressive contribution to influential scientific publications, Willetts denied that these factors were in themselves a sufficiently powerful economic argument for funding.

Impressively, he seemed to me to want to look beneath the superficial layer of headline successes to test the evidence for the real economic impact of a science base that is capable of delivering such scientific prowess.

As far as the economy goes, it may not really matter where scientific discoveries are made. The key for the success of UK plc is to be able to assimilate those discoveries and engineer them into new products and industries. But that is only likely to happen if there is a strong science base (which itself is likely to be contributing to leading-edge research) with good links with industry and business. Willetts acknowledged the success of some universities–including Imperial College–in reaping the harvest from their science through spin-out companies but cautioned that the spin-out model had perhaps been given too much credit as an engine of commercialisation. He suggested that the sausage factory model of university funding — money in, product out — had been oversold. In fact only about 3 percent of university income derives from spin-outs.

Willetts seems keen to explore other avenues. He spoke warmly of ‘clusters’ of universities and industry such as the ones at Dundee that have been successful in the life sciences and video-game software. He also talked of the need to ensure that the country was training sufficient engineers to be able to convert knowledge into technologies that sell.

In addition the Minister has been reading up on his science policy. He cited a discussion paper (pdf) by Jonathan Haskel and Gavin Wallis which reported strong evidence for market benefits from the public R&D spend on research councils (but not from civil or military research). In this context Willetts applauded the public (and charitable) investment in the Diamond Light Source synchrotron, a facility I have used myself and one which provides a valuable but otherwise unaffordable resource for the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries.

How these approving words will be transformed into government action remains to be seen, though Willetts made a good start by announcing the postponement of the Research Excellence Framework, the government’s mechanism for measuring university performance, the philosophy and methodology of which has been heavily criticised. Perhaps I was caught up in the excitement of hearing the speech live, but I am glad to have Willetts on the side science as he prepares to do battle with the Treasury mandarins.

Willetts’ mature and knowledgeable approach to science will hopefully reach into other areas of public policy. While the previous Labour government significantly boosted investment in science, its record on incorporating scientific evidence into policy making was spotty at best. Willetts sounded a more hopeful note in this direction:

“More broadly, as society becomes more diverse and cultural traditions increasingly fractured, I see the scientific way of thinking – empiricism – becoming more and more important for binding us together. Increasingly, we have to abide by John Rawls’s standard for public reason – justifying a particular position by arguments that people from different moral or political backgrounds can accept. And coalition, I believe, is good for government and for science, given the premium now attached to reason and evidence. We have already offered a science induction for new MPs, and ensured that the principles of scientific advice to government are referred to in the new ministerial code. In addition the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, has updated his guidelines on the use of scientific and engineering advice in policy making.”

He also spoke of the importance of the social sciences in bringing an evidence-based approach to the understanding of human behaviour which is of course crucial to the formulation of policy in a broad range of areas, including control of drug use, criminal justice, education and welfare.

I was particularly pleased to hear an acknowledgement of the need for reform of the libel laws of England and Wales:

“We cannot… have writers facing libel charges because they offer a scientific critique of other people’s claims. This is an issue which I have raised with Ken Clarke, the Lord Chancellor, and which his department recognizes they must address.”

After the end of the speech I managed to catch up with him to ask precisely what the government’s plans were in that regard and was told, encouragingly if somewhat elliptically, to expect an announcement from the Ministry of Justice ‘very soon’. As it turned out, I didn’t have long to wait because yesterday afternoon the government declared its intention to bring forward a defamation bill next year. This is good news, not least because it is a very positive response to the concerns of the scientific community about the chilling effect of libel law on our freedom to discus and criticise in the public domain any matters relating to science.


Photo from the Facebook page of the Royal Institution

So I left the Royal Institution with a smile on my face. Given the circumstances, Willetts had said much that was heartening to a beleaguered scientist.

But the heat from warm words needs to be sustained during the tortuous process of forming detailed policies if it is not to dissipate into a hollow bitterness. Once the glow of my very brief encounter with the minister had faded, I recalled the tenor of the conversations I have been having with my scientific colleagues up and down the country in the past several months. No-one I know is looking forward to the future with much optimism. Funding cuts and redundancies are at the forefront of all our minds — and are already a harsh reality for some. There’s a long, hard winter to be borne before we can taste anything like spring again.

Willetts’ words will only be proved to have any worth if they can survive the freeze and help to nurture the re-growth of a healthy body of UK science.

*If anyone can explain to me how we got sick in the first place, I’d be much obliged.

This entry was posted in Science & Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Warm words but cold, hard choices ahead

  1. Stephen Moss says:

    Stephen – you have accurately captured the essence and tone of Willetts’ speech, I also thought that his enthusiasm for science appeared genuine. However, I profoundly disagree with his reasoning for not following our major competitor countries and increasing the science spend. The argument that the UK cannot follow suit because our public finances are in a more parlous state is utterly spurious.
    There are numerous studies, not all by those with a vested interest, that have addressed the highly complex question of how much economic benefit derives from each pound/dollar spent. In the US and UK such calculations generally yield a four to eleven fold return, so science not only pays for itself, it contributes to the greater economy.
    One needs only a single brain to see that cutting spending on a public sector activity that pays for itself is pointless. At the very least the science budget should be maintained, and if the ConLibs really want to do something constructive they should increase it.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Stephen. I have started to dig into some of the studies that seem to provide the evidence base for the positive impact of public spending on science but haven’t got far enough in my reading to be able, personally, to make the case. If you have references to add, I’d be very interested to see them. This is of course, part of the necessary serious response to nay-syaers such as Simon Jenkins.
    By the way – very nice finally to meet you in real life at the speech yesterday. Sorry you couldn’t stay for lunch. Though I’m hoping to hit Westminster skeptics on Monday night, I have booked a ticket for this earlier discussion on science policy at the British Library, involving Mark Henderson of The Times and Evan Harris.

  3. vishal kalel says:

    Thanks Stephen for sharing the scientist point of view on governmental policy making. I don’t have much idea about various UK funding agencies, but I have heard lot about generous funding by Wellcome Trust to UK researchers as well as to international research fellows. They also launched Wellcome Trust-DBT India alliance with fellowships for researchers at various stages. But the trust is changing the funding system this year from project grants to individual investigator grants. Do you have any idea about other non-governmental funding agencies in UK which are affected by the financial downturn or if they are changing their strategies to stay in shape.?

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Vishal – The Wellcome Trust have certainly made a major contribution to UK life sciences (and to my own research).
    But I have my misgivings about this new direction in their funding. It will be generous to those who are successful but I am concerned that it will mean that the money is concentrated in the hands of fewer people and that many others will struggle to survive. As a result, I suspect there will be increased pressure on research council grants.
    It’s all very well focussing on the ‘most excellent’ researchers, but there are many who operate just below that level who nevertheless make a valuable contribution both to research and to teaching the next generation of scientists. I’m concerned that this move by the WT doesn’t ‘join up’ with the wider needs of the scientific and university sector.