The Very Big Stupid

Sitting on the train yesterday coming back from a night at the Opera, I was reading The Observer. Last week’s edition had featured a superb piece by comedian David Mitchell on the topic of research funding. His argument, essentially, was that the government shouldn’t be directing its research funding at areas which will yield immediate economic benefit, but should instead be doing precisely the opposite. It is, he argues, the job of industry to invest in R&D that’s “relevant” to its immediate needs. It is the job of academia to do things driven by pure curiosity. If these happen to pay off it’s of course a good thing, but it’s a bonus and can only be expected to deliver a financial return in the long term.

Funding only that bit of science that can deliver immediate profits is a bit like diverting all the Arts Council grants into pop music or pantomimes when instead it should be funding things that are too experimental to  rely on revenue generated by paid customers, such as the Opera. I couldn’t agree more, but I am a bit biased in respect of that particular example. Although his piece was intended to be humorous, like a great deal of great comedy there is a great deal of truth in it.

This week’s edition of the Observer contained a number of letters about Mitchell’s piece. One called for him to be given a position in the government. Of course that would be inappropriate. He’s an intelligent and forward-thinking person, and would therefore be completely out of place in such a job. Another letter produced the following memorable quote from Frank Zappa which is exactly to the point.

The Very Big Stupid is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department.

Meanwhile I attended a meeting this morning at which we were informed that all universities in England have been told to plan for cuts in their recurrent grants of about 15% next year. It is likely that Wales will follow suit. Since most of a University’s expenditure is on staff salaries, corresponding reductions will have to be made, either by cutting salaries or (more likely) by making redundancies.

Research Councils are also likely to feel the squeeze which will hit responsive mode grants too. For astronomy and particle physics, who rely on the Science & Technology Facilities Council for their funding, the situation is especially dire because even without the anticipated cuts, that particular organization has an enormous black hole in its  budget anyway.There is a strong likelihood that existing grant funding will be clawed back to plug the gap, with immediate consequences for postdoctoral researchers and a catastrophic long-term effect on morale.

Pure science in the UK faces a very grim period. All three main political parties have promised savage spending cuts after the next election. The Tories have promised a budget within a month of coming to power if they win; they certainly won’t increase  taxes to cover the budget deficit, especially not at the top end of the scale. A Conservative budget is very unlikely to contain any good news for science or higher education generally.

It’s time for us all to get lobbying about the importance of pure research, but the difficulty is that the Research Councils that are supposed to be distributing funds for this purpose are largely populated by politically appointed individuals who can’t or won’t fight the corner. The Chief Executive of STFC, for example, seems to be content to turn his organization into a channel through which government subsidy flows into technology and engineering companies with only a cursory nod in the direction of basic research. I suspect there are many within the higher levels of management of  other research council  who also see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to cut back “useless science” still further.

I’m sure  that in the long run people will look back on all this as a Very Big Example of The Very Big Stupid, but I’m also worried that for many research projects and for many scientific careers there may not actually be a long run.

4 Responses to “The Very Big Stupid”

  1. An in-depth argument similar to Mitchell’s was made by the former CERN director general Chris Llewellyn Smith in his eloquent and thoughtful essay “The use of basic research” available to read on CERN’s website:

    http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/About/BasicScience1-en.html

    Essential reading for all lobbyists for basic research.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    The current trend of switching state funding away from basic science in Britain towards applied science, technology and engineering has been in place, seriously, for a few years, of course. It has been accelerated by the appointment of the current science minister, Lord Drayson, who has been an entrepreneur in applied biotechnology, and who is an enthusiast for motor racing and big boys’ toys.

    This situation is the inverse of that of twenty years ago. Under the Thatcher government the policy was to support basic science (grudgingly), while leaving technology for the free market to support.

    I am surprised that the academic community has not argued more forcefully over the past several years in favour of the case for funding basic science in itself. There has been a tendency within astronomy and particle physics to argue that these disciplines are worthy of state support because of their indirect economic benefits. The argument went that research in these areas meant that considerable numbers of people were trained to PhD standard, and developed further expertise in postdoctoral positions, who would find employment in other activities, such as industry. (The reason they would leave basic research was the catastrophically poor careers structure which would force a large majority of them out, though this factor was understated.) These high-achieving individuals would then boost the general economy, so the argument went. The only specific employment destination that was mentioned was finance (where these people presumably used their advanced mathematical skills to develop financial products that nobody else could understand, and which then wrecked the world economy). That argument seems a lot weaker these days.

    In the days of PPARC, the research council executives and civil servants had their own reasons to support these arguments about research in astronomy and particle physics boosting the economy: their career aspirations involved getting more money for the areas of science they administered. Now that PPARC has been subsumed into the Science and Technology Facilities Council, these same people can use arguments about economic benefit more successfully for other research activities that they administer, such as applied physics facilities and government laboratories. They have little reason to argue for the benefits of studying pulsars or the origin of mass when they can more easily convince the Treasury to fund laser facilities.

    The case for continued funding for astronomy and particle physics today would be more powerful politically had the academic community made the case for funding basic science for cultural reasons in the first place. Equally, the case for funding these areas because of their indirect economic importance would be stronger had the arguments made been based more strongly on evidence. Research in these areas do inspire school pupils, which encourages them to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics at school and at university. That act of inspiring people in a general sense toward STEM subjects is powerful. Then researchers in astronomy in universities teach undergraduates physics and mathematics to students, many of whom will then go on to work in industry and business. The trouble is that people have argued, inappropriately, unconvincingly, that it is people with PhDs in basic science who are of value to the economy.

  3. […] well as the end of Britain’s history of excellence in those areas. I’ve already blogged about my view of short-termism in research […]

  4. […] I couldn’t agree less with what the RAEng say in their submission to BIS, but instead of going on a rant here I’ll direct you to John Butterworth’s riposte, which says most of what I would want to say, but I would like to add one comment along the lines I’ve blogged about before. […]

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