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Why Labour’s attack on government science policy is misplaced


Liam Byrne

Liam Byrne, shadow universities minister, says ministers are wrong to become so easily obsessed by new discoveries that interest them. Photograph: Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images

The last time I listened to Liam Byrne speaking about higher education in Manchester was over 20 years ago when we were both active in Manchester University students’ union. He was a moderniser and a centrist even then. So it was no surprise to hear him deliver such a careful and thoughtful speech at a Labour party conference fringe event.

He refused – once more and more than once – to explain his position on tuition fees, on the unarguable grounds that any policy must be properly costed. But he was very persuasive on the need to amend the student migration rules.

However, it wouldn’t be a party conference without some political knockabout. On this, Byrne delivered. He was particularly critical of the coalition’s decision-making on research funding, complaining that the Haldane Principle – the idea that research priorities should be set by researchers, not politicians – has been thrown out of the window.

Byrne’s accusation is nothing new. Every shadow science minister accuses every science minister of breaking the principle – irrespective of which parties are in and out of office at any time. Indeed, the Haldane Principle was invented as a political football: it is generally thought to be around 100 years old, but was in fact invented by the Tory Lord Hailsham in the 1960s to complain about Harold Wilson’s approach to science.

Byrne’s contention is that the coalition has subverted the Haldane Principle by funding its favourite projects. He says ministers are wrong to become so easily obsessed by new discoveries and inventions that interest them, such as graphene or driverless cars.

But there are three flaws in this critique. First, while the coalition has opted for certain research priorities, it is hard to prove they do not align with the science and research community. Funding has been fired particularly at the “eight great technologies”, which were identified in a speech by George Osborne at the Royal Society back in November 2012.

At the time, Osborne explained that they were based on what the government understood were scientists’ own priorities.

It is true that the political class synthesised scientists’ own much longer lists down to just eight. But there was no process in which priorities that sounded unpalatable were struck out. Instead, it was a process of corralling the vast number of important areas in to a digestible form – without deleting any of them. That is why each of the eight great technologies are so broad. They are: big data; synthetic biology; regenerative medicine; agri-science; energy; advanced materials; robotics and autonomous systems; and space.

Since the list was published, few scientists have complained it focuses on the wrong priorities. (Although as a special adviser to the coalition, some of the smartest lobbying I witnessed was from scientists making sure their own research area fell within the eight-great list rather than just outside it.)

The second problem with Byrne’s critique is that he has some clear research priorities that he wishes to support. In June, he published a Plan for Science that promised “active government”. In a more recent pamphlet he backs new international networks to connect universities and researchers, action to entice global science hubs to the UK and better links between small businesses and universities for the benefit of regional economies. Those are unlikely to be costless policies.

In wanting to support international science, and particularly co-operation with China, Liam Byrne is in fact remarkably close to David Willetts, who was science minister until July.

A third problem with rejecting the coalition’s approach to science out-of-hand is that it raises an unhelpful question: which of the priorities of the current government might not be funded under a Labour government? Surely not big data? Nor high-performance computing? Nor advanced materials?

There are better questions to put to ministers on science policy, like when will the freeze on science and research spending end, do they intend to increase the amount of funding linked to a researcher’s impact, and do they want to further concentrate research funding, which would come at the cost of particular UK regions?

The Haldane Principle is critically important, but it is not the area over which science policy should be fought at the next general election.

 

Source: The Guardian News (http://www.theguardian.co.uk/news/)




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