Translational Science In Transition: The New Science Policy

Who owns Big Science in the UK? Does government science policy sit within wider public policy, or is it stand alone? The Cooksey Review has stirred strong feelings amongst medical scientists, and also further afield. Few science policy questions can be determined without understanding the wider public policy context.
Who pays for what in the constant race to stay at the global cutting edge in science and technology is a hot debate. Often neglected is an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of stakeholders, but this is an area which the scientists themselves sometimes ignore.
Getting to the bottom of who can / should pay for science and innovation in the UK is a difficult task. When all relevant interests – science and technology, policy makers, the economy / electorate – are perceived there is more clarity, but only rarely does this happen. The issue is however making headway as a result of changes resulting from the 2007 Budget, which promises an increase in investment in public science of 2.5 per cent from 2008-09 to 2010-11..
Both the Cooksey Review on funding for health research, and the (connected) introduction of the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills focus on ensuring that progress in scientific research and wider value for money go hand in hand.
Value for whom?
The really big question here is, who benefits from investment in what sort of science? This is surely the nub of the issue, but it needs a wide perspective to answer the question properly.
The emphasis seems so far to be on the ‘translation’ of blue sky research findings into marketable commodities – an entirely sensible idea in general., but not a complete one. The core issue of how much benefit accrues to whom when commodities become marketable is not easily resolved.
Whether the product eventually taken to market is a medical drug, a form of renewable energy or a development in nanotechnology, there are likely to be direct and indirect benefits and costs.
Medical priorities in research
One person’s or sector’s gain may be another’s loss – an obvious but frequently forgotten matter from the perspective of practising scientists.
This may be particularly true in the case of medical scientists, who are currently it seems most agitated, and who often have a specific, and possibly tragic, individual human condition in mind as they undertake their work. Nonetheless, this human priority cannot stand alone.
Medical scientists have not always covered themselves in glory when it comes to collaborating within the Big Science framework – the Daresbury crisis of a few years ago comes to mind – and for some of medical researchers the universe probably finishes at the point where abstract research translates (to use the new term) into pharmaceuticals. This is why, when public money is involved, others must take a wider view.
Science policy and public policy
Policy in government-sponsored science is not, contrary to much of the discussion, a singular issue. For a start, there is policy about science; and then there is policy relating science and the general public interest. These two are inter-connected, but not always the same.
Science policy variously (as examples, and in no order of priority) might be about:
* ‘translating’ or bringing blue sky research to the market;
* meeting a specific human or technical need;
* continuing promising lines of investigation which may or may not eventually go anywhere;
* establishing or maintaining national reputation, or that of an institution and / or individual/s.
Public policy relating to science might, e.g., concern:
* developing local science-based businesses;
* linking scientific and technical / medical research outcomes to the wider economy;
* developing programmes or projects in geographical or otherwise specifically identified areas, to progress regeneration or other ambitions for general benefit;
* seeking answers to particular policy conundrums or challenges, by way of developing the evidence-base available to decision-makers.
Contextual perspectives on science
To make sense of these difficult and often conflicting priorities between science and public policy requires seeing the wider contexts in which science and technology operate.
Social, economic and political backdrops are not secondary matters when government is paying directly for science to be done. They are central and critical, right from the beginning.
‘Translating’ science is ultimately about taking blue sky research to market, but it is also in another sense about making sure that stakeholders – the general public – know and are comfortable with what, through their taxes, they are paying for.
Consensus on taking science forward
From this point of view scientists need to accept that, if government pays directly, it wants to know how the research will take public policy forward.
Politicians are not usually keen to write open cheques for unknown outcomes, nor should they be.
Scientists paid by government are usually there to do their part within a policy framework geared to fairly tight timescales, to make the evidence-base available or to develop a required product. As such they rarely have the luxury of following their noses in research, just because it looks interesting.
Government funding
Sometimes there is a case for blue sky research directly funded by government, but probably, given budgetary constraints and the constant need to be immediately answerable to the electorate, not often.
The right way to support (most) blue-sky research is through the universities’ wider funding and large science-led corporations.
Such investment will, if directed wisely, bring reward in the longer term, when investors can as a result make the evidence-based case for government to invest in developing the applications of their new-found knowledge.

Posted on September 14, 2007, in Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Science Politics And Policy, Sustainability As If People Mattered. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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