The Haldane Principle, 21st Century Science Research And Regional Policy
Posted by Hilary
There are compelling reasons for a regional science policy for the UK; but they are often dismissed as incompatible with the Haldane Principle of 1904 and 1917/18, that government must not ‘interfere’ with scientific research. Science then was vastly less expensive and impacted far less on the economy and ordinary people’s lives. In the 21st century, the potential for regional development through science is huge – and it can only be done through intentional government direction.
The ‘arm’s length’ principle, that government should not intervene in how to determine what scientific research is done, was developed about a century ago, by Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), who chaired UK Government commissions and committees on this subject in 1904 and 1917/18.
The 1918 Haldane Report recommended that only specifically required research should be commissioned and supervised by particular governmental departments. All other research, said Haldane, should be under autonomous Research Councils (of which the Medical Research Council was to become the first), free from political and administrative pressures and able to develop as was deemed fit by the Research Councils themselves.
Noble and fictional?
Noble as the pursuit of knowledge simply for its own sake may be, it’s impossible in our age of huge expenditure on Big Science that this recommendation, now almost a century old, can remain unexamined as the way forward.
The possibly apocryphal story is told (sadly, I can’t remember by whom) of one of the extraordinarily talented Huxley family having, many years ago, a laboratory at home in which he explored scientific questions; and of his son asking innocently of their young neighbour, what his father did in his (home) laboratory…. It’s not like that any more.
And in most cases it probably wasn’t like that then either. Not many people in any age have been able to pursue science just as a self-financed hobby.
As recent House of Commons debates have illustrated, there is growing concern that the UK Government’s huge investment in science should have the best possible return, on what is in the end tax payers’ money.
But no investment returns in our complex world can be measured in only one way. There are impacts of many kinds – on jobs and the economy, on infrastructure, on the environment, on people’s future life expectations, as well as on the state of knowledge itself.
Who does what evaluation?
Few of these impacts are easily measured, and even fewer carefully monitored from when a line of research is first proposed. This is at least in part because of the Haldane Principle and its continuing influence on government.
Politicians continue be nervous of any accusation that Haldane has been breached, an accusation easily made by scientists keen to pursue their work unhindered. So, little is made of the positive or negative impacts that scientific research of itself (as opposed to later ‘applied’ through technology and industrial developments) may have on, for instance, the locations in which they may be placed.
Single criterion decisions
‘The science’, it is proclaimed, must speak for itself, unhindered by base considerations of how it might benefit (or otherwise) non-scientific developments such as urban regeneration.
One result of this position is that decisions about large-scale and fundamental scientific research are made only by scientists, with scant if any regard to the measurable impacts which the process – as opposed simply to the possible eventual outcomes – of undertaking the research might have on the people (tax payers) who provided the wherewithal.
Surely even a hundred years ago this was not Haldane’s intention? He was in fact advising the government of the day on how best to benefit from science at a time of war.
Imaginations and applications
There is a strong case for supporting fundamental or ‘pure’ science, in the sense that it allows the very best scientists to take their disciplines forward in exciting and truly astonishing ways. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a core activity in science, and, properly handled, can be an enormous catalyst for progress.
Haldane can be very properly invoked to ensure that there is no interference in the way fundamental science is actually done. We can understand that fundamental research requires scrupulous peer review, but never political meddling.
This is however very different from the idea that politicians have a positive duty to ensure all the ‘added-value’ they can squeeze for the wider community which they represent, when the government funds big research investments.
Regionalism and regeneration
In Haldane’s time the very concept of regeneration as we now know it didn’t exist.
It was only later that observers such as J.D. Bernal (in 1939) argued that the overarching consideration be social good rather than freedom of research; this being followed in 1971 by Sir Solly Zuckerman‘s critique of the artificial separation of applied and basic science – a critique in part accommodated by the Rothschild Report of the same year, which saw some funding and decision-making being handed back to government. (This thinking was also followed elsewhere, e.g. in 1972, when an article in the respected journal Nature called for an ‘End to the Haldane Principle in Canada‘.)
That was respectively 80 or 35 years ago; and despite continuing debate (in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere) it seems we still fail to see where Haldane helps in the modern world, and where he doesn’t. I doubt this was a legacy the man himself intended.
Good science can also offer added value
There is little doubt that only good science is worth doing – the other sort isn’t really science at all – and good science requires genuine independence for its practitioners. Haldane continues to offer assurance that scientists can and must conduct the work they do unhindered.
We should not however confuse this guarantee of research independence ‘on the ground’ with the duty upon government to ensure its (and our) money is invested well.
Sometimes the best investment is indeed in fundamental research, expensive though this is. But the ‘non-science’ dividends of placing that research, whether fundamental or applied, in one location rather than another, may be compelling.
Regional science policy
Now that science involves such enormous funding, the case for investing that money also as part of regeneration strategies in the UK ‘regions’ is persuasive.
Some scientists on Research Councils, divorced from the realities of wider public policy, may want to cite Haldane as they resist the idea of looking at regional investment impacts ensuing from the development of research proposals. They are wrong to do so.
The time has come for regional science policies to become part of the equation, acknowledging the impact that Big Science research based away from the Golden Triangle would have on areas of the UK which require regeneration. This is hardly an ask too far.
And it is certainly not a threat to the integrity or operational independence of science, Haldane Principle or not.
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Posted on July 23, 2008, in Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Science Politics And Policy, Social Science. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.