Archive for October 25, 2010

Engineering a Conflict

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 25, 2010 by telescoper

I don’t have time to post much today so I thought I’d just put up a quick item about something that the e-astronomer (aka Andy Lawrence) has already blogged about, and generated a considerable amount of discussion about so I’ll just chip in with my two-penny-worth.

Some time ago I posted an item explaining how, in the run-up to last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the Royal Academy of Engineering had argued, in a letter to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), that government research funding 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.

They went on to say that

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.

I had hoped that this unseemly attack on particle physics would have been seen for what it was and would have faded into the background, but a recent article by Colin Macilwain has brought it back into the spotlight. I quote

UK engineers have started a scrap that will grow uglier as the spending cuts begin.

I should add that MacIlwain isn’t particularly supportive of the engineers’ position, but he does make some interesting remarks on the comparitively low status held by engineers in the United Kingdom compared to other countries, a point alsotaken up on Andy Lawrence’s blog. In my opinion this bare-faced attempt to feather their own nest at the expense of fundamental physics isn’t likely to generate many new admirers. Neither is the fact – and this is a point I’ve tried to make before – that the engineers’ argument simply doesn’t hold any water in the first place.

The point they are trying to make is that research in engineering is more likely to lead to rapid commercial exploitation than research in particle physics. That may be true, but it’s not a good argument for the government to increase the amount of research funding. If engineering and applied science really is “near market” in the way that the RAEng asserts, then it shouldn’t need research grants, but should instead be supported by venture capital or direct investment from industry. The financial acumen likely to be available from such investors will be much for useful for the commercial exploitation of any inventions or discoveries than a government-run research council. To be fair, as MacIlwain’s article explains, a large fraction of engineering research (perhaps 75%) is funded by commerce and industry. Moreover some engineering research is also too speculative for the market to touch and therefore does merits state support. However, that part that needs state support needs it for precisely the same reason that particle physics does, i.e. that its potential is long-term rather than short term. This means that is in the same boat as fundamental physics and shouldn’t keep pretending that it isn’t. If engineering research needs government funding then ipso facto it’s not likely to generate profits in the short term.

I think scientists and engineers would all be better off if they worked together to emphasize the amazingly successful links between fundamental physics and technology, as demonstrated by, e.g., the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the mutual interdependence of their disciplines.

United we stand, and all that…