One of our shortcomings as a country has been that whilst we’re brilliant at primary research and at scientific discovery, we’re less successful at making the most of those discoveries for commercial purposes – at getting businesses to actually get in there and exploit the discoveries which our scientists are making,” said the United Kingdom’s Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, in an interview with The House earlier this year.
Exploitation of science a.k.a. innovation, is at the heart of the UK government’s economic policy and industrial strategy. This push has manifested itself in the accumulation of all UK funding councils into one super-council: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Science can no longer survive as a worthwhile human endeavour in and of itself; it needs to make a quantifiable economic impact. Johnson qualifies this carefully in speeches: “Great science is, of course, important in its own right, as well as yielding enormous practical benefits.” His delicacy implies how he thinks we should view science: fundamental research is necessary, but we should focus on its practical outcomes.
“Explotation of science, a.k.a. innovation, is at the heart of the UK government’s economic policy and industrial strategy”
This analysis could be thrown off as mere cynicism, but with last week’s announcement of the non-executive board of UKRI, the government’s plan for research is exactly what I feared it might be. The UKRI non-executive board will play a critical role in providing strategic direction and oversight of research funding in the UK. Members of the Board – who were appointed by Johnson, and will typically serve for between three and five years – include a number who specialise in turning science into an industry: Mustafa Suleyman is co-founder and Head of Applied AI at DeepMind, where he is responsible for integrating the company’s technology across a wide range of Google products. There are also academics with links to big business: our own President Alice Gast is, amongst her other roles, a board member of Chevron, who “work[s] to meet the world’s growing demand for energy by exploring for oil and natural gas.” Another important member is Lord Browne, who chaired the Browne Review which recommended the removal of the student fees cap. He is emblematic of universities becoming a business. And what would a research funding council be without an ex-managing director of an investment bank, Sir John Kingman.
Through selecting these board members the direction UK research will take is evident: the only science worth doing is science that can have an economic impact. On the surface this may seem like a fairly innocuous statement. Indeed, why waste time and spend taxpayers’ money doing something that might not be of use to anyone?
Science can take time to show how it can be useful, and some of the most remarkable discoveries have come out of looking at something that first appeared pointless. CERN management thought Tim Berners-Lee was wasting time with his useless world wide web; the Nobel-prize-winning cancer researcher Paul Nurse stumbled across a gene for cell division after watching yeast, and in 1867, nine years after Faraday’s death, a meeting of British scientists pronounced that “Although we cannot say what remains to be invented, we can say that there seems to be no reason to believe that electricity will be used as a practical mode of power.”
“Through selecting this board, the message is evident: the only science worth doing is that which has an economic impact”
Is the UK’s push for research to be useful in the here-and-now, in an economic sense, a step in completely the wrong direction? I would heartily say yes, but what’s more unsettling is that the trend isn’t specific to the UK.
Speaking at a European Research Area conference in Berlin last year, Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation said the next framework programme for European research funding, FP9, should have “a more sophisticated approach” to impact. However, it is still yet to be understood, what exactly Moedas means by his comments. Some believe he wants to replicate the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, REF across Europe, but we will only find out when the FP9 is developed over the next year.
The EU “poorly distinguishes between research funding and obsolete forms of industrial subsidisation”, wrote Peter Strohschneider, President of the DFG, a German research council. He is highly critical of the UK’s and the EU’s stance on impact and believes that research can only have true impact when anticipated short term benefits are not allowed to become the main criterion for funding decisions.
I side with Strohschneider, for in my eyes the truth worth of science is unquantifiable and beyond any measure of impact.