Selling science by the pound

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The President of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, John McDougall, caused quite a blogstorm, and set Twitter alight, at the end of last month when he said:

“Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

The tweets below give a good indication of the consensus view among the Twitterati. I don’t have a Twitter account but I also added my own small howl of outrage via The Conversation.

There’s just one small problem: McDougall didn’t say that.

As described at Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, McDougall was badly misquoted in a Toronto Sun article. This misquote effectively went ‘viral’. Shortly after my brief article at The Conversation was uploaded, I was contacted by Patrick Bookhout, Media Relations Officer at the NRC, who was understandably quite keen to put the record straight. As I told Patrick by e-mail, like too many others I took the quote at face-value. A mea culpa is in order – I didn’t spend enough time doing my homework, ie verifying that the newspaper article had got its facts straight. That I was not alone in this is no excuse.

So what did McDougall actually say? Here’s the contentious quote verbatim:

“Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn’t qualify as innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.”

And you know what? I agree with much of that statement. Scientific discovery and innovation are different things and, for reasons I’ll outline below, we ultimately do academic research, and the taxpayers who fund it, a disservice to pretend otherwise. (McDougall is wrong, however, in suggesting that new ideas and discoveries, in and of themselves, do not have societal value.)

Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield, and erstwhile Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has pointed out the disconnect that exists between fundamental scientific research and the ‘nucleation’ and growth of successful industries based on innovative technologies.

I’m not going to rehearse Jones’ arguments here. I would strongly recommend that you visit his Soft Machines blog for a number of extremely well-argued posts on the deficiencies in UK innovation policy. (If only all PVCs were as well-informed as Prof. Jones…). Although Richard and I may not always see eye to eye on the value of, and motivations for, basic scientific research, he is someone who certainly does his homework. Take a look at his analysis of the UK’s disinvestment in R&D since 1980. (Note, in particular, the steady decline in private sector investment and Jones’ highly plausible interpretation of what this means for the direction of academic science in the UK.)

McDougall got it right about the disparity between scientific research at the frontiers of knowledge and innovations that translate to the market. But, of course, this is not a distinction that academic scientists, and the research councils which fund them, are exactly falling over themselves to promote to government. In the short term it serves us very well indeed to blur the boundaries between funding for basic science and for near-market R&D. You reap what you sow, however, and ratcheting up expectations for short-term, and direct, returns on investment in academic research, across the board, is a rather disingenuous and dangerous strategy.

What I find truly depressing is that this strategy is now fundamentally embedded in the workings of the research councils in the UK. EPSRC, in particular, has introduced a slew of new funding mechanisms and policies over the past five years or so which are steadily ensuring that it becomes more and more difficult in the UK to get funding for disinterested research which is not connected to the near-term requirements of industry.

For the more masochistic among you, there’s much more on my ‘issues’ with EPSRC here, here, and here. (And, oh, here as well.) As I mentioned in the article in The Conversation, recent moves by EPSRC towards further skewing the funding landscape towards applied research include the recommendation that industry not only is involved in Centres for Doctoral Training, but ‘co-creates’ the PhD training programme.

Not long ago, at the 2013 Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) conference here in Nottingham, Rick Rylance, Chair of Research Councils UK, said – assuming that I can believe the Twitter traffic this time – that the distinction between pure and applied research is “beginning to become untenable”. This is a stance that is becoming increasingly fashionable and was levelled against my particular research area, nanoscience, not so long ago.

I disagree with Rylance in the strongest possible way. All scientific research indeed falls somewhere along the pure-applied spectrum, and the boundary can certainly be difficult to define. But there is a vast difference in the mindset, motivations, and working methods of an academic scientist working on, for example, the fundamental basis of quantum field theory (…or the origin of dark matter, or the location of exoplanets, or submolecular resolution imaging at 4 K …etc.), and her colleague in a nearby department who is attempting to improve the efficiency of a market-ready photovoltaic device in collaboration with industry. Germany certainly sees a distinct separation between fundamental and applied science, supporting basic science via its Max Planck Institutes, and applied research through the Fraunhofer Society.

Contrary to what Rylance states, the science funding process would be a great deal more honest and free of misleading hyperbole (directed at both government and the taxpayer) if there were a much stronger delineation of basic and applied research projects, including the provision of separate funding streams. As it stands, EPSRC’s ‘one size fits all’ approach means that, regardless of where a scientist’s work falls on the pure-applied spectrum, each and every grant proposal must outline the direct socioeconomic worth of the research via Pathways to Impact and National Importance statements.

And that’s not so very far removed from a position which holds that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/mixture-currencies-finance-business-69523/

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

3 thoughts on “Selling science by the pound”

  1. Thanks for writing this Philip. I can’t help but think that when fundamental research tries to justify its worth by talking about spin-off benefits or vague ideas about potential technology in the long-term future it is conceding half of the battle before it even begins.

    In fact, it is choosing to fight the battle on un-winnable grounds. If spin-off benefits were the reason fundamental research has worth then we should save all the costs and invest in the spin-offs directly. And if long-term future technology is the reason then we can and should wait and invest in more practical things now.

    Fundamental research has worth and should be invested in because trying to understand nature has intrinsic worth. It makes the world a place worth living in and enough of the public agrees with this sentiment to make government spending on it justified.

    I would love if research council grant applications had an either/or choice. “What is the direct socioeconomic worth of the research” or “What will you do to make your research accessible to the general public who paid for it?”

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  2. Interesting stuff, Phil. When it comes to fundamental physics, I think there’s a growing disenchantment on the part of politicians and the public because there’s been no progress in recent decades. I’d say the perception goes something like this: instead of progress, we get propaganda from vested interest groups who wine and dine science editors, fantasy speculations from celebrity physicists who promote themselves in the pretence of promoting science, and censorship from “experts in the field” who abuse peer-review to maintain their prestige. The upshot is a growing sentiment that all physicists are bunch of arrogant ignorant dilettantes living an easy life on the public purse, with no concern for the issues that face our modern world. So there’s a cold wind blowing, the result is funding pressure, and until something happens to deliver some progress, it’s only going to get worse. Call me Cassandra, but remember the end of the first “Terminator” movie? The garage attendant looks to the sky and says “there’s a storm coming”. I fear things are going to get worse, Phil. Much worse.

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