Archive for July 13, 2010

Science versus Engineering?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by telescoper

I suppose it was inevitable that there would be infighting as academics jostle for an increase intheir share of what is likely to be a diminishing level of research funding to be announced at the end of the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review.  The first professional society to try to barge its way to the front of the queue appears to be the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has written to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in terms that make it clear that they think egineering should prosper at the expense of research in fundamental physics.

To quote the RAEng:

we believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term, is foreseeable. I recognise that this calls for significant changes in practice but I see no alternative in the next decade. This may mean disinvesting in some areas in order properly to invest in others.

And where should the axe fall?

BIS should also consider the productivity of investment by discipline and then sub-discipline. Once the cost of facilities is taken into account it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology’. This ratio becomes significantly more extreme if the comparison is made between particle physics researchers and those in engineering and technology. Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines. Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Obviously whoever wrote this hasn’t heard of the World Wide Web, invented at CERN – precisely the place singled out for vitriol.

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.

The reason I think that the RAEng is precisely wrong is that I think the Treasury (on behalf of the taxpayer) should only be investing in research that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out. In other words, the state should fund academic esearch precisely because of its “blue sky” nature, not in spite of it.

Conversely, engineering and technology R&D should be funded primarily by the commercial sector precisely because it can yield short-term economic benefits. The decline of the UK’s engineering base has been caused by the failure of British companies to invest sufficiently in research, expecting instead that the Treasury should fund it and all they have to do is cash in later.

I’m not calling for the engineering and technology budgets to be cut – I don’t have such a blinkered view as the RAEng – but I would argue that a much greater share should be funded by private companies. This also goes for energy research. As Martin Rees pointed out in a recent Reith Lecture, the UK’s energy companies spend a pathetically small proportion of their huge profits on R&D. The politicians should be “persuading” industry to get invest more in the future development of their products rather than expecting the taxpayer to fund it. I agree that the UK economy needs “rebalancing” but part of the balance  is private companies need to develop a much stronger sense of the importance of R&D investment.

And, while I’m tut-tutting about the short-sighted self-interest displayed by the RAEng, let me add that, following the logic I’ve stated above,  I see a far stronger case for the state to support research in history and the arts than, e.g. engineering and computer science. I’d even argue that large commercial companies should think about sponsoring pure science in much the same way as they do with the performing art exhibitions and the Opera. We need as a society to learn to celebrate curiosity-driven research not only as a means to economic return (which it emphatically is) but also as something worth doing for its own sake.

Finally, and most depressingly of all, let me point out that the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Philip Greenish, sits on the Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, an organisation whose aims include

To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics.

Clearly, he should either disown the statements produced by the RAEng or resign from STFC Council. Unless he was put there deliberately as part of the ongoing stitch-up of British physics. If that’s the case we all have the dole queue to look forward to.