Penny wise, pound foolish? David Farquhar

Chasing the money in science funding will lead to fool’s gold

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

If this statement came from a politician, the profound lack of understanding of the socioeconomic role of scientific research might possibly be forgiven. The fact it was spoken by John McDougall, president of Canada’s National Research Council, is truly worrying. The comments have rightly provoked widespread censure.

Einstein is attributed with saying, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. This perhaps overstates the case, in that many scientists have reasonably well defined objectives for their research programmes. Nonetheless, the quote captures the idea of science as being an exploration at the frontier of knowledge.

Every research programme funded by Research Councils UK (RCUK) is currently underpinned by the requirement to demonstrate near-term socioeconomic impact. Indeed, the next generation of researchers funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are now trained in large cohorts in Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs). For a CDT proposal to be funded, industry must not only be involved; it must “co-create” the training programme with the academic partners. This focus on demonstrable application can very easily undermine the disinterestedness and exploratory character that should be the bedrock of scientific research.

And while there is still some way to go in the UK before we reach the nadir of funding policy represented by McDougall’s statement, RCUK’s focus on directing research towards nebulous economic goals can often run counter to the principles of the scientific method.

Driving the outputs of publicly funded research towards industry’s short-term requirements also leads to immediate concerns about the independence of the work. For instance, the pharamaceutical industry has an appalling track record in burying negative results. Not so long ago one might have hoped that independent academics funded by public money would expose wild claims of drug efficacy made on the basis of commercial imperatives. However, by skewing the research they fund towards work with well articulated “pathways to impact”, research councils are eroding the independence of university research.

Not all industry-academic partnerships are compromised in this way, of course, but when economic impact becomes a target for a publicly funded research programme, one must always guard against the distortion of the science to produce the “desired” results.

RCUK will argue that this misrepresents them. They will claim that societal impact is as important as economic impact. But which is easier to “sell” in a grant proposal - economic impact supported by hard numbers, such as income generated from licensing, spin-outs and intellectual property, or the rather more nebulous societal benefits arising from basic science and outreach activities?

McDougall’s statement stems from a basic, and systemic, failure to appreciate the role of fundamental scientific research. The terms “science”, “technology”, “engineering”, and “innovation” are not synonymous. Again, while we might forgive a politician’s gaffe in using these words interchangeably, funding bodies should know better.

There is a very long list of examples where fundamental research has produced vast economic returns - lasers, MRIs, and magnetoresistance (the basis of modern hard disk technology) are just three of those most regularly cited. But in common with a very large number of physicists, my motivations for pursuing scientific research do not stem from the economic returns it may eventually produce. I am a scientist because I want to answer questions about how nature behaves; to expand the limits of knowledge; to understand how the universe works (in my case at the atomic and molecular level); and, importantly, to communicate those insights to society at large. But according to the research councils, if I do not have one eye on the economic or societal impact of my research, I am not doing my job correctly.

The lazy response to this stance is that my type of “ivory tower” rhetoric is outmoded in this era of economic crisis. Funds should be directed away from scientists who fail to realise that they live in the “real world”. They should do work that is actually “useful”. This not only betrays a depressing level of philistinism but, perhaps counter-intuitively, is also economically illiterate. Without fundamental, disinterested research not only are we culturally and societally impoverished as a nation, but the type of disruptive scientific and technological advances that have the most impact will never emerge.

This is not to say that all university funding in science should be targeted at pure, rather than applied, research. It’s obviously a question of balance. But instead of recognising the diversity inherent in the research “landscape”, UK research councils now require each project proposal - whether it is focused on the apparently esoteric underpinnings of string theory or targeted at near-market developments in solar cell technology - to be written with direct socioeconomic impact in mind.

It is not as if a mechanism does not exist to support near-market research and development partnerships: the UK’s Technology Strategy Board focuses specifically on the university-industry interface. In principle, this should allow research councils to focus on funding of scientific research not directed at specific economic targets. Instead, and somewhat perversely, the research councils are focusing more strongly on near-term economic impact.

David Willetts, British Minster for Universities and Science, clearly understands not only that a balance of funding is required, but that the level of public vs private investment depends critically on the potential for near-term return. In a speech at Policy Exchange last year he said, “the more specific the return, the greater the chance that it can be financed privately”.

Instead of expecting universities to compensate for decades worth of underinvestment from UK industries, let’s hope that we pursue funding policies that are rather more enlightened than those of McDougall and the NRC. The total return on investment in fundamental scientific research is effectively incalculable. Chasing near-term returns on science funding is a frighteningly apt example of that old adage in action: penny wise, pound foolish.

Counter: Scientists need to prove their research is worth it

Update (13/06/2013): Many expressed outrage at McDougall’s quote, but it seems he was misquoted. Philip Moriarty has written a post on physicsfocus clarifying this, and adding to the debate about “commercialising science”.