Should the state fund science?

Should the government be funding science research or is private industry in a better position to call the shots? We ask two science communication students.

Earning Our Daily Bread

‘Bread and butter’ research is hardly appetising. Tedious, unprofitable and usually public sector-funded, it has much in common with the National Loaf. This bread was as dull as most things provided by the government, with its sawdusty taste and tough texture. Created in 1942 due to shortage of white bread flour, the National Loaf was a staple of war-time rations. Apart from my gran, who says it is the one thing she misses about the war, most people choked it down without much relish. But despite its disagreeable flavour, it did those people a lot of good. It was designed by government scientists to contain the vitamins and minerals missing from war-time fare, and was part of the reason that the generation which emerged from the war was healthier than we are today.

Since the war, Britons have given up the crusty old National Loaf. Given the choice, the public prefer the private sector’s sugar and salt-stuffed loaves to the government’s unappetising alternative. Science is facing a similar situation.

The traditional model for scientific research is that the government funds dull, basic research and private sector companies turn it into something more flashy and profitable. These companies pay taxes, which go back into pure research, and the cycle starts again.

Economist Terence Kealey argues against this model, claiming that it is private sector science which boosts the economy, while public sector funds invested in research might as well be poured down the drain.

I find that argument rather half-baked. Business aims to promote growth, so it’s hardly surprising that it does that well. But economic growth is not the only aim of science, and we have already seen from the banking crisis how the private sector can leave the foundations of its institutions to rot in pursuit of profits. In the increasingly privatised environment of research institutions, signs of this profit-driven neglect are already apparent.

Last year, Imperial College Biology department sacked its best teachers as part of a restructure, to cover a hole in their budget. The lecturers made redundant were the ones that students found most inspiring, but focusing on teaching meant that their research had suffered. It didn’t make money, so they were sacked. Many potentially gifted students who would have gone on to a career in research are now reconsidering, and science can only suffer from this loss.

Privately funded research may be sweeter, and easier to sell, but it only has the public’s bet interests at heart if they are compatible with making a profit. We could stand to learn a thing or two from the National Loaf. It was uninviting, and hardly likely to make a profit in a free market, and neither is teaching a bunch of eighteen year old scientists the theory of relativity, or how to use a micropipette. However, the alternative is a profit-driven environment where a researcher who is willing to teach puts their career at risk. One where academics can be unceremoniously booted out of a department if their research doesn’t make enough money. Is this really what we want for future scientists?

Government funding may not produce economic growth that we can measure, but for all its unpleasant taste, using it for our bread and butter research will make us all healthier in the long term.

Anna Perman is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College.

Coalition contradictions: The case against state science funding

Economic growth is urgently needed in the UK, but faced with free-market university reforms, attempts to achieve this by maintaining state science funding are misguided.

Following last Octoberʼs Comprehensive Spending Review, the scientific community cautiously celebrated the announcement that core science spending would be ring-fenced. This security, however, was not extended to UK universities. Major reforms in the tuition fee and education funding models are leading the UK towards a US style free-market system. While both are bold gestures, what is perhaps more surprising is the failure of the coalition to recognise the incompatibility of these two policies.

The trend towards to a US university model is partly rooted in the governmentʼs need for urgent economic growth. They hope to create wealth by extending profit-seeking motives to universities and enhancing links between universities and industry— notably in the recent £200m expansion of the UKʼs Technology Innovation Centres.

The rationale is simple: technology breeds economic growth. No-one doubts this, but, as Terence Kealey outlines in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, it is industry, not government, who are in a better position to make these commercial judgements. As state money ultimately comes from industry through taxation, these government initiatives are an inefficient means of growth.

State funded science canʼt and should not attempt to directly achieve growth: in the US, the state did not fund science until 1940, yet the huge sums of money subsequently poured into science have had no impact on Americaʼs linear growth rate of 2 percent (a constant since 1820). State funded science should rather focus on the backing of basic science, primarily through academic institutions, with the advantage that it is not tied solely to the motive of profit. In this way a government can direct science towards wider social aims, while providing a freely available research basis that can also stimulate private technological developments.

However, if the institutions in which this basic science is undertaken are market orientated, this function is lost. Dan Greenberg explores the pitfalls of university scienceʼs marriage to capitalism in Science for Sale. Scientific integrity becomes called into question, with numerous examples of unfavourable research being suppressed by Big Pharma and science being twisted to fit particular agendas— most notably by the tobacco and oil industry lobbies. In the drive for profits, data is shielded rather than shared: the open research basis is undermined and academic science is no longer a public good.

The overarching ideology of the coalition emphasises the individual and their role in the ʻBig Societyʼ. A reduction of state control and the move towards a market driven university model is core to this, demonstrated by the reluctance of the government to back down on university reforms despite mass student protests (and findings from the Higher Education Policy Institute that the reforms will not actually save money). Within this political climate, it was pointless to exclude science from widespread cuts with the aim of achieving growth. Not only are government attempts to drive growth inefficient, but university reforms thwart any possible contribution to growth that university science could provide in the form of open basic research.

Thomas Lewton is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College and is an Editor of Refractive Index.

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