Science is vital, just not in the way you think

Scientists take to the streets, optimistically. PA

The UK government’s spending review is coming up and scientists are worried. They fear that there may be cuts to science funding, which they were able to just about avoid in 2010 after a strong campaign that saw scientists take to the streets in protest.

The 2010 spending review nominally protected science with a flat cash settlement, but close examination of the small print quickly revealed an accounting trick separating out capital spending from current spending, allowing the government to significantly cut back on the former. Much of this deficit has been made good with subsequent announcements, but in a highly competitive funding system even modest cuts can cause great uncertainty, driving unwise decisions that may be difficult to reverse.

So the worry this time around is real, and the cry has once more gone out that “science is vital” to our future economic well-being.

Unfortunately, science funding debates in the UK often generate more heat than light. There is a widely held belief that curiosity-driven, basic research is the direct precursor to the technological development that contributes to economic growth. In this view, without a steady supply of fundamental discoveries, the innovation process will necessarily grind to a halt. Sadly, there is little evidence in favour of this view.

There are broadly three sources of evidence relevant to the question: econometric studies, case histories and surveys of innovating firms. Econometric studies try to uncover the relationship between investments in research and improvements in productivity. They do this by modelling research as a process in which cash is turned into knowledge.

Partly through dissatisfaction with the wildly different estimates of “social return” on research investments that come from these econometric studies, the attention of scholars has progressively turned to empirical case studies and surveys. But the allure of hard numbers provided by econometric studies remains strong, even if those hard numbers may have no meaning.

Nearly 60 years of empirical studies, plus insights from the history of science and technology stretching back much further, tell us that the processes by which research can have economic and societal impacts are complex and non-linear. New knowledge is neither the only output nor necessarily the most important. The knowledge and understanding generated by scientific research is undoubtedly valuable in its own right, and may provide an important background for technological development, but discoveries seem only rarely to play a crucial role in directly driving innovation.

Unfortunately, the terminology we use to discuss research and innovation remains founded on the simple linear belief that fundamental research must come before nearer-market research and technological development. Yet scientists select the topics they work on for many reasons, and advances in fundamental understanding can come from research conducted to solve real world problems. And in some fields the distinction between basic and applied may break down completely.

Science and technology are both global activities, so there is absolutely no reason to believe that UK investments in scientific research should lead directly to UK benefits in terms of innovation and new technologies. But the conduct of cutting-edge scientific research does directly drive the development of new research techniques and technologies. And crucially, it creates a stock of very highly skilled researchers.

In this way UK spending on science underpins the creation and maintenance of a base that gives us the ability to evaluate, absorb and use knowledge developed elsewhere. It also attracts the best minds in the world to come and work here (that is assuming they are allowed in).

Since leading scientists value independence in selecting the focus of their research, since new scientific knowledge is rarely a direct input into innovation, and since we can’t predict what knowledge we might need tomorrow, there is clearly an important place for blue-sky science.

So, science is vital – just not in the way most people think. Unfortunately, a belief that science drives innovation can actually be harmful to science. Viewing the science base as a production line for commercial knowledge that is somehow misfiring has driven policymakers to tinker with it in order to “fix” the problem.

But our science base is not broken. Technology generally comes from research directed to developing it, something that both government and industry have neglected for decades. Our world-class science base is a tremendous national asset that needs careful nurturing, not cuts or hasty, poorly-thought-out prioritisation. And if the UK is serious about innovation, it needs to build a world-class technology base to accompany it.

Counter: Trust the markets to fund science

Infographic: How much does the world spend on science?