Hands off our boffins!
Drayson moves to use the science budget as a subsidy
Updated The UK's main sci/tech research funding body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has sent out clear signals that Blighty's science budget is being refocused in large part as an industrial subsidy.
Government biznovation minister Lord Drayson appears to be behind the moves.
Signs of a shift in emphasis have been emerging for some time. Lord Drayson holds a ministerial portfolio at the new government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) - which subsumed the shortlived Dept. of Innovation, Universities and Skills last year. There were those who were a bit disappointed  that DIUS didn't feature the word "science" in its title when formed in 2007 - but at least it had the word "universities". This has now disappeared.
Earlier this year, Drayson set out his stall, saying :
Other nations are making choices about which areas to focus on in order to drive future growth... Shouldn’t we do the same to boost the economic impact of our science base?
Has the time come for the UK – as part of a clear economic strategy – to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation...?
We have made a start. My question is whether we need to go further and – while maintaining our overall investment in science – shift a greater balance of our investment...
Medical research has long been a strength of the UK... We have a strong industrial base in life sciences – Number 2 to the United States with both big pharma and biotech resident here.
The noble Lord's large personal fortune was made in pharma and biotech, though not actually by means of any successful research or innovation. There have since been questions  about the vaccines produced by his firm Powderject, and it has been noted that the world is still waiting - without any great anticipation - for the eponymous injection device.
In theory the STFC, in charge of handing out government cash in research grants and funding for "big science" - telescopes, atom smashers etc. - is free of government influence. But STFC spokespersons admitted to the Reg this week that "obviously we are guided by DBIS".
Further ominous hints are revealed by the STFC's "prioritisation " exercise, begun in May and still under way. No new grant money will be committed beyond 2010 until "prioritisation" is complete, the STFC has announced  this week.
'Only excellent science has survived thus far' - but not for long
Professor Keith Mason, STFC boss, also offers this presentation (pdf)  on the way ahead. In it, he sets out what the science and engineering research budget is now deemed to be for: that is "hastening economic recovery", "skills", "innovation", "quality of life", attracting "inward investment" and assistance to industry.
In other words it's a subsidy. The government is disinclined to fund knowledge for its own sake: research must be of commercial benefit to the UK. There is one exception in that science is also expected to produce "the Wow factor" - but this too is to be justified on economic grounds. The "Wow factor" is merely a recruiting tool, designed to attract young people into scientific and technical disciplines. This, seemingly, is the main or only reason to pursue such things as particle physics or space exploration - to sucker young people into studying hard subjects at school and university, so that they can later do economically useful industrial work.
Then, Prof Mason speaks of "tough times" and tightened public finances ahead, and warns that the "status quo" cannot continue. "Only excellent science has survived thus far", adds the prof - thus more or less bluntly stating that some excellent boffinry will now be cut.
We called Terry O'Connor of the STFC for a chat about this. We asked if Prof Mason's comment on excellent science being all there is left didn't mean some excellent science disappearing in the near future.
"That is an inevitable conclusion," admitted O'Connor. "But in some ways it's an enviable position, being forced to choose among excellent science."
We also inquired whether all this wasn't a fairly blatant move by the government to simply repurpose the science vote as an economic tool.
"I can understand why people ask that," said O'Connor. "Our own scientists ask that. But we are keeping up research that isn't economically relevant... there are cosmologists doing really great inquiry into the origins of the universe. That doesn't have any real benefit to the economy, but we think it's worth doing. It's about curiosity, it fulfils a basic human need."
Just to provide some perspective, it's worth noting that the entire annual science vote is just £3.5bn at the moment - peanuts, in government money terms. As an example, the Department of Work and Pensions alone - the various forms of dole - costs almost £150bn. The health service costs £110bn. Government spending in total for 2008/09 is estimated at three-quarters of a trillion pounds.
It seems to us here on the Reg boffinry desk that, in the case of science, actually the status quo - at less than half of one per cent of what we collectively spend - is eminently affordable. If Lord Drayson wants a billion or so to hand out to his former business chums in the medtech'n'pharma sector he should look elsewhere. Sure, government spending should generally be controlled by ministers - but not in this case. It isn't as though Drayson was elected to his position. Neither was the prime minister who appointed him, in fact.
We can afford this rather paltry sum for science: in fact we can afford several times this without really noticing the expense. Most of us could spare a penny or two in the pound off our dole - should we be getting any - or a month or so off the end of our lives: that would translate into several billion pa at the very least for Blighty's beleaguered boffins.
And we say this money should be spent on proper science and ultra-technology that has absolutely no obvious benefit - space probes (ideally packed with scientifically questionable but pleasingly dramatic astronauts)*, mighty atomsmashers, telescopes and the like. There should also be legions of premier-league brainboxes kicking scientific arse for old Blighty, engaging in totally incomprehensible boffinry deathmatch arguments , reaping a glorious harvest of Nobel prizes and generally making the world a more interesting place.
If the odd spin-off economic benefit should occur then well and good, though we feel on the whole this would work better if published for the benefit of the entire human race than if held as intellectual property - the web, to name one such development, would probably never have worked if it had been someone's property. But trying to deliberately make such things happen in a direct and visible way is foolish and probably damaging at best, shortsighted and venal at worst. ®
Lord Drayson's staff at DBIS have been in touch. They say:
There is no cause to anticipate tough times or tightened public funding for science. The science budget is ring fenced.
Current financial problems at the STFC arise from a variety of factors [see "Big Science Budget Blunder Bloodbath' below] and pre-date Lord Drayson's appointment as a science minister.
*Perhaps launched aboard splendid re-usable spaceplanes .