government's drive to make research economically sustainable is costing
us jobs and potential scientific discoveries, writes Tim Radford
Wednesday November 30, 2005
who fund research operate to a double standard. They must
simultaneously count the cost and gamble on the value. They have to
work out the price of the science a researcher may do now and for the
next two or three years, and what kind of laboratory fittings a new
generation might need in 10 years' time as well. Researchers, on the
other hand, are not so accountable, and cannot entirely be counted on.
That is because they do what they like.
do what they like in the most literal sense: rational people do not go
into cosmology or dendrochronology or functional genomics for the
money, they go into it because they are driven by a passion for the
subject. They also do what they like in a capricious sense: they may
take a university post or a research council grant to work on one
thing, and then find themselves beginning to follow the logic of their
labours in quite another direction. This, too, is on the whole no bad
thing. If 55 years ago, Francis Crick and James Watson had done
precisely what they were told, instead of exactly what they liked, the
first of a whole procession of Nobel prizes might have gone to
Berkeley, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts but they certainly
would not have gone to Cambridge, England.
of which is the backdrop to a very sorry drama being played out in
institutes funded by the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology Research
Council. Two agricultural institutes are under sentence, and an
estimated 500 jobs could disappear across five research stations, all
in the cause of paying for hardware that nobody has thought of, and
laboratories that have not yet been built, decades into the future.
This is because a government that invaded Iraq without the least idea
of what it might cost even six weeks into occupation, has insisted that
universities and research councils factor in the full economic costs of
science that nobody has yet dreamed of. So the wealth of now - the
accumulated expertise of 500 thoughtful, enthusiastic or downright
obsessive people - is to be discarded because the doctrine of full
economic costs means that any research that survives must be
such as "baby" and "bathwater" keep springing to mind. Lord May of
Oxford, the famously forthright, outgoing president of the Royal
Society, may have been thinking of them when he spoke out recently
about the "appalling, obsessive bureaucracy" hampering British science.
"Today, Crick and Watson's work on DNA would have been blocked before
they had got started," he told to Robin McKie in the Observer. "Crick
would have been sacked for being idle and Watson would have been told
to piss off and stop messing about with his grant."
for Labour (not a body openly committed to this government's downfall,
or even to its embarrassment) has already angrily said that "such
swingeing cuts, particularly in the areas of food safety and public
health, make a mockery of the government's frequently stated aims of
increasing support for science." The Campaign for Science and
Engineering (it used to be called Save British Science) is more sad
than angry. The determination to put the management of both science and
its infrastructure on a sound and sustainable footing is fine, says
Peter Cotgreave, its director. Once this golden future is secured,
research will be so much the healthier. Under successive Conservative
governments, the infrastructure of science slowly collapsed.
won't get back into that situation in 10 or 15 years, as we did before.
That's a good thing. But clearly, as we move from where we were to
where we are, if you put money into mending the roof instead of paying
scientists, you lose scientists," he says.
has happened is the budget hasn't increased fast enough to avoid pretty
significant redundancies. It is not a strategy to get rid of people.
These are accidental victims of a thing which in principle is a very
good idea and will avoid many of the issues that we were complaining
about when this government first came in."
he agrees, there seems to be no way of measuring the full economic cost
of not doing the research that those 500 scientists might have
achieved. The betting is that research in fields that are unfashionable
now will be cut, but of course this is precisely what may turn out to
be vital five years on. And anyway, if we live in a knowledge economy,
this a bizarre way to finance it. If Britain is to become the best
place in the world to do science, as the chancellor of the exchequer
keeps promising, then saying goodbye to 500 scientific posts purely for
accounting tidiness is not a great way to start. If the research
councils want more children to take up science at school, then telling
500 scientists that they cost a bit too much may be sending the wrong
if the science bosses want future glory for British science, they won't
get it by playing safe. "If Alexander Fleming had been made redundant
five years earlier in a budget cut we'd never have known about
penicillin," says Cotgreave.