Comment »Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy

On the Guardian website last week, George Monbiot launched an all out attack on UK science funding entitled ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’. The men he is attacking are current research council bosses, as well as Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation. Monbiot accuses them of damaging economic interference in science funding.

Last month’s budget ringfenced £106 million for science that showed “economic potential”. This was accompanied by a new mandate from research councils, asking that all new grant applications include a rundown of the research’s economic implications.

UK science is certainly becoming more business savvy. And this is changing how science is done. But it is not necessarily damaging it. Monbiot jumps from arguing that economic aims should not control scientific funding to the conclusion that scientists’ imaginations alone should have that job. For him, proper science is when scientists are free to pursue their passions; “it is about wonder and insight and beauty”.  He puts an absolute divide between scientist-led science and business-led science. If economic interests encroach on science funding, then, according to Monbiot,  scientist-led science will disappear.

But this is going too far. There is no great chasm between what scientists aim at and commercial aims. There is certainly tension between the two, but they are not distinct. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York uses one particular example to illustrate this. Research into the biological processes behind cancer has been productive in recent years. So much so that work at the level of cell-processes is almost complete. In order to increase our understanding in this area, and perhaps develop new treatment, we do not need more medicalresearch but better computer-modelling. We need more mathematical research. If mathematicians working in abstract areas had not been publically funded over the last few decades, then we would be much further away from the relevant models.  The economic potential of new cancer treatments is huge. Whichever mathematicians get there first will open up the road to large-scale commercial possibilities. But this could not have been foreseen. IT was serendipitous.

Lord  Drayson’s response on Sunday made this point. Unfortunately, it was lost alongside both his defense of his own commercial record and forceful, pro-Labour concluding remarks. 

Drayson agreed that scientific serendipity is a necessary part of how science works, and that this scientist-led science should be protected. But this does exclude asking scientists to consider the economic implications of their work. Nor does it make it any easier to ask for more science funding from Alastair Darling’s already tight budget without promising the money to projects with economic potential.

Public spending on science is justified in one of two ways:

(1) Science is an academic discipline that finds out wonderful things.

(2) Science is part of the foundation of a knowledge economy and it’s output will help improve the economic climate.

Neither fully captures the real need for continued spending on science – that is a mixture of the two. But what Monbiot fails to acknowledge is the importance of the second. If you are in the business of convincing politicians to give more money to science, then talking in terms of economic outcomes looks like the more profitable route. And so that is the rhetoric that Drayson et al needs to use, even if they know in reality science doesn’t quite work like that.

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