Farewell to the Haldane Principle?

Many scientists – myself included – were so relieved at the outcome of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review that we thought the government had accepted the argument that Science is Vital more-or-less completely. Most of us have stopped worrying about whether we’re going to have to go about to carry on doing science and just got on with doing it for the past few weeks.

However, today I came across some worrying news about planned changes to the way the science budget is administered in the UK. In particular, the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith Director General for Science and Research – is to be phased out. The position will be merged with what are currently other separate positions within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to form a single Director General covering science, universities, research and innovation.

There’s nothing intrinsically sinister about administrative reorganisation, of course, and one can understand that a certain amount of streamlining might well be justified in order to save costs at a time of economic challenge. However, there are worrying signs about this particular change.

One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants. Apparently there will no longer be a scientist in a position to speak up for science among the higher management of BIS. Adrian Smith is not only an effective manager – as demonstrated by his past success as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London – but is also a respected figure in the field of mathematical statistics. I suspect this combination of skills and gravitas played a big role in securing a reasonably satisfactory outcome for science in the CSR.

Another worrying thing is that the planned reorganisation apparently hasn’t even been discussed with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington. Former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May has reacted angrily to the new proposals, calling them “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”. Strong stuff.

On top of all this is the apparent ambivalence expressed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, about the Haldane Principle, which has underpinned British science policy for decades. Roughly speaking, this principle states that it should be researchers rather than politicians who should decide where research funds should be spent.

Willetts recently responded to a question about the Haldane Principle in the form of a Parliamentary written answer:

The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of scientific programmes.

The Government do, however, need to take a view on the overall level of funding to science and research and they have decided to protect and to ring fence the science and research budget for the next four years. This decision has been made in the context of the current economic status of the UK and the strategic importance of research funding, while recognising the value of science to our future growth, prosperity and cultural heritage.

Over the years there has been some uncertainty over the interpretation of the Haldane principle. I intend to clarify this is a statement which will be released alongside the science and research budget allocations towards the end of this year. In order that this statement has the consent of the research community, I intend to consult with senior figures in the UK science and research community to develop a robust statement of the Haldane principle.

A superficial reading of this does start out by giving the impression that it strongly supports the  principle. However, I’m not aware of what  “uncertainty” there is over its application that requires such clarification. I rather think this is being put up as  an excuse to limit its scope, i.e. that the uncertainty is more about how the political establishment can get around it rather than what it actually means.

The fact that the  “robust statement” of a Revised Version of the  Haldane Principle is going to be wheeled out just when the allocations to the research councils are announced makes me very nervous that its prime function will be to justify big cuts in fundamental science in favour of applied research.

This all seems to add up to  a systematic attempt to sideline the scientists currently involved in the development of UK science policy development and its implementation. If nothing else, it seems rather strange from a political point of view to try to bring about this change in a way that is bound to alienate large sections of the scientific community, just when the government seemed to be recognizing the importance of science for the UK.

But then, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe we just have a new government that’s trying to do too much too quickly, and happens to have made a botch of this particular job…

You can find other blog posts on this issue, e.g.  here and here.



8 Responses to “Farewell to the Haldane Principle?”

  1. The last Science and Technology Committee were uncertain in how the Haldane principle was applied. It came up several times in their inquiries. I particular they were concerned about whether or not there was a regional policy aspect to science funding in questions such as where should new facilities be sited (e.g. Harwell vs Daresbury). I’m not sure they resolved this.

    Indeed if you are in a situations where research councils allocate their cash internally with an eye to government policy/wishes rather than being led by their community then that suggests that Haldane is at least stretched very thin. I am aware of a number of folks who were concerned that the manner in which STFC was operating (de facto arm of government) was in danger of breaking Haldane.

    A couple of old blogposts with some relevance:

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Crowther, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Farewell to the Haldane Principle?: http://wp.me/pko9D-25e […]

  3. “One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants.”

    Maybe I’m confused about how various terms are used in different places and/or maybe things have changed, but does this imply that there are no people who are both scientists and civil servants?

    • telescoper Says:

      Traditionally the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith has been someone from an academic background, not a Whitehall mandarin.

    • OK, but are not at least some (older, i.e. those who have been in post for a long time) professors civil servants? Or is that the case only in some countries outside the UK? Is, say, Martin Rees a civil servant? Or Malcolm Longair? Or Roger Penrose?

    • telescoper Says:

      Professors are employed by universities, which are independent institutions. They’re not civil servants, although they might be if they have a second job…

  4. I’ve heard on the grapevine that the person taking over the new post of Uber-Director at BIS created by phasing out Adrian Smith’s current job will be…..

    ….Adrian Smith!

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