I have been intending to blog for a very long time about an article that I read last year concerning the public funding of science in the UK. Events of this summer reminded me of the article and crystallised some thoughts that I feel like getting off my chest. The article in question is by Prof. Athene Donald in the Guardian (I should confess a tenuous link to Prof. Donald in that she is currently head of the college I attended in Cambridge). The article is entitled “UK science is excelling, but are we funding the wrong projects?”
The tenor of the article is that “excellence”, as judged by the UK research councils, should be more important in deciding how funds are allocated than “geography” as championed by politicians. The politician in this case is George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, not a man that I am particularly fond of. However, the attitude in the article is that a cosy bunch of scientists should be permitted to decide how public funds are spent and that scientists have been “bothered” because a democratically accountable politician has taken an interest in this spending. Indeed, Mr Osborne went so far as to be a very prominent and public campaigner for a particular institute and for science in the north-west of England more generally. I am afraid that attitudes like that expressed in the article, which seem to assume that scientists have some inalienable right to spend public funds and that the intrusion of democratic accountability into the process is a bad thing, are just one more contributor to the alienation of much of the population of the UK. Their response to scientists’ contribution to the brexit debate was a great big flick of the finger.
It is pretty clear that the research councils in the UK are a fig leaf to give a veneer of scientific excellence while avoiding the need for politicians to get involved in picking individual scientific projects. They provide an accountant’s sense that the UK taxpayer is getting value for money and in many senses, I am sure they are. While this seems reasonable for some of the funds, which will inevitably go towards smaller, more incremental pieces of research, the line in the article decrying the fact that the research councils are required “to make open-ended commitments to new Treasury-backed projects” is an outrage and an enormous missed opportunity. Taxpayers have every right to scrutinize how any public money is spent and to allocate it however they wish via democratically accountable politicians. To suggest otherwise is, at best, foolish. More importantly, this is a short-sighted, missed opportunity. We should be seeking political support to drive the prominence of science in the public consciousness; I would like the public to be encouraged to celebrate the great feats being undertaken by scientists in the UK and to see our politicians climbing over one another to champion the great science that we do in the UK. I fear that the system we have instead sees a closed group of self-congratulatory scientists supporting far too much work that the public would be unlikely to wish to fund and telling them that they must keep paying for the research but are not entitled to have a say. I think Charles I had much the same attitude and revisiting this article has made me sense the righteous indignation that must have driven the Parliamentarians that he faced. I will try and write something without reverting to references to the 17th century at some point soon…
Obviously the above represents my own personal views and not that of any of the institutions with which I may be affiliated.