Category Archives: Science Politics And Policy

C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ Is Fifty Years Old Today

Science & Music books C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’, arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.
Science & Technology.
Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 – 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.
For me that’s certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 – 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science ‘works’ – especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) – have helped to bridge that science – humanities chasm.
Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.
But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 – 1978) made on C.P. Snow’s thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.
Not always incompatible
Isn’t it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?
There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and ‘science’, but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.
The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don’t seem to understand the nature of evidence (not ‘science’) … that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.
Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere…. the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.
Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we’re nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.
When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society ‘knew’ less than we do now. It’s difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is ‘worse’ than it was in the 1950s and 60s – and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn’t perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.
For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.
The longer view
It’s said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it’s worth. But what I’m sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people – including me – over several decades, with the debate he sparked.
Snow’s perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.
You don’t need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.
Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world… and never has that been more true than now, with the ‘one planet living’ challenges we all face.
Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.
Bridging the gap
I’m not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called ‘standards’; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.
If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.
Read more about Science & Technology.
For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Two Cultures’ Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.

Easter Sunday Is Eco-Sunday: The Day UK Resource Self-Sufficiency Ends In 2009

The new economics foundation (nef) tells us that, as of today, the UK has used the levels of resources it should consume during an entire year, if it were environmentally self-sufficient. In 1961, nef calculates, the UK’s annual eco-debt began on 9 July; by 1981 it was 14 May, but in 2009 it falls on 12 April, Easter Sunday. But how can we help people in their daily lives to address and cope with these frightening calculations constructively, rather than such information just causing further alarm? Science and ‘facts’ alone won’t get us where we all need to be.
Sustainability As If People Mattered.
I’m not sure that those of us already concerned with sustainability approach these matters in the best way to engage others yet to be converted – nef* says Easter Sunday (eco-debt day 2009) is ‘a day which for many has become synonymous with over-indulgence’. That’s a pretty unempathetic perspective on one of the UK’s few annual family holidays.
Sometimes perhaps the force of our convictions and fears about sustainability can make us sound a bit crass.
Offering hope, not inferring guilt
Inducing guilt and/or alarm is not often the most effective mode by which to gain mass support, in an open democracy, for complex and uncomfortable change. Personally, I’d rather see Easter as an occasion with a message, whether sacred or secular, of new beginnings and hope – an opportunity for positive reflection on the future.
Eco-protagonists and scientists are vitally important to our understanding of what’s happening to the environment. But they’re not always good at helping people in the wider community to face up to the enormous environmentally-related challenges which, we must urgently acknowledge, are already upon us.
Research findings and predictions based on rational calculation do not always translate as clearly as the scientists imagine into policy acceptable to the wider citizenry. To the person in the street it can all seem just too difficult and scary, well beyond the scope of ‘ordinary folk’.
Engaging people for positive change
Nonetheless, the UK’s increasing eco-debt is desperately alarming, and something we need to get everyone to think about, right now.
The question is, how?
[* Andrew Simms (2009) Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations, cited in Transition Network News, March 2009. Andrew Simms is nef Policy Director and Head of the Climate Change Programme.]
Read more articles on Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Natural Vs. Physical Science Research Points Up Regeneration Added-Value

Science Laboratory with computers Are the Natural and Physical Sciences squaring up for inter-disciplinary combat? Each requires huge sums of money to maintain research momentum, but who decides what research offers best value? How can we measure Particle Physics ‘against’ say, environmental technologies? With their vast ‘pure research’ budgets to secure, perhaps the Physicists will now also discover that evaluating research investment regenerational impacts supports their case.
The rumblings of dissent between the physical and natural scientists are getting louder. There is a view abroad that investment in areas like Particle and Theoretical Physics is too expensive, when we need urgently to develop sustainable, ‘One Planet Living‘ technologies.
Applied or fundamental research?
Today’s Guardian newspaper (6 September ’08) has an article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a facility (apparatus or laboratory) in Geneva which will cost £5bn over the next 20 years – which adds substance to these rumblings. Prof. Sir David King, previously the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, argues that ‘big’ money for scientific research is best spent encouraging top scientists to address climate change and related environmental issues; Britain has so far contributed about £500m to the LHC.
The Physicists however argue that thus far we know about only 5% of what constitutes the universe; we cannot stop exploration of the fundamental nature of matter.
Valid views
Both perspectives are valid. But which will hold sway?
The environmental research argument is compelling to people who know little about science, as well as many (often including natural scientists who feel short of funding) who do. The fundamental, ‘science for the sake of knowledge’ position is also persuasive, but perhaps only really to those who already perceive the deep intellectual challenges of exploring the nature of matter.
Political decisions
It was probably alright to leave science decisions to the scientists a century ago, when the Haldane Principle decreed that political involvement in research decisions was unacceptable. But things have changed, and science is now infinitely more expensive than it was then.
How, on behalf of UK plc, should the Government allocate its cash? Decisions on specific scientific programmes are still made by the Research Councils; but overall allocations are decided by the politicians.
The socio-economic case
Some while ago, practitioners in the Arts and Culture began to espouse the ‘socially useful’ position: what they do should be supported because it helps community development and regeneration generically, and makes jobs.
My expectation is that, finally, the physical scientists may catch on to the same notion.
Currently, there is little of any discussion about how investment in Big Science – the large research facility programmes – impacts on the locations in which it is placed. In the future this may change.
Jobs and infrastructure
Some 10,000 scientists are employed by (and were attracted to work in) the LHC; and that’s before we get to the armies of scribes and other support staff required for such a programme. This, inevitably, must have a huge impact on the various economies in which LHC is embedded.
Scientists until now have held the idea that ‘value-added‘ – the additional socio-economic regenerational (as opposed to simply business) impact of research investment, over and above its scientific value as such – is irrelevant to their decisions about which proposals to support. Research funds may be from the public purse, but regenerational impact, we are told, is irrelevant to decisions about where programmes are located.
Shifting criteria
This high-minded dismissal of non-science-related socio-economic impact, I predict, is about to come to an end. Many technologists and natural scientists, like their more arty colleagues, now make compelling cases for how useful their work will be to society, within quite short time spans.
This is the only way practitioners in the more abstract and fundamental physical sciences can go, in terms of short-term impact. They will have to begin, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the legitimacy of questions about the ways their huge budgets can, alongside unravelling the mysteries of the universe, provide improvements to local economies, infrastructures and regional regenerational prospects.
You read it here first.
Read also:
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability
From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge

From Regeneration To Sustainability: A Northern Take On Knowledge

Summary: This is a version of the Keynote Lecture I gave at the NUREC 2008 conference, in Liverpool on 28 July 08.
In it we explore the connections between Knowledge Economies and Ecologies, and Big Science and Regeneration, especially in regional and sub-regional settings, and in respect of issues around Sustainability.
My basic thesis is that Knowledge is not yet recognised for the fundamental resource it surely is.

A complete version of this paper can be found on Hilary’s professional website, here.

The Haldane Principle, 21st Century Science Research And Regional Policy

Research lab 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.
Vast investments
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.
Read also:
Science & Politics
Natural Vs. Physical Science Research Points Up Regeneration Added-Value
and
Big Science, Technology And The New Localism

Food, Facts And Factoids: What Do We Need To Know?

Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water…. Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

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Big Science In Regional Economic Context: Daresbury And ALICE

Daresbury Laboratory Tower  60x99 043a.jpg Investment in scientific programmes often has added socio-economic value. But there is little evidence that good indices are available to measure what this impact might be for large-scale scientific regionally-based development. Whilst private investors guard their capital with care, only rarely do the criteria for evaluation of Big Science proposals include adequate consideration of the wider impact of public funds invested.
The bovine foot and mouth pyres of a few years ago are testament to unintentional damage inflicted when strictly focused ‘science’ is applied crudely in wider socio-economic contexts.
Everyone wanted to do the right thing; but the upshot of scientific best advice was rural economic devastation.
What criteria?
The same scenario may be enacted again, if the judgement of a panel of leading scientists results in removal of the Alice (Accelerators and Lasers in Combined Experiments) programme at the Daresbury Laboratory in North-West England.
The science will carry on elsewhere, most probably in the USA, but the NW regional economy, which could have benefited hugely, will instead take a hammerblow.
Best value for government investment
Scientists quite rightly concentrate on what they understand – in this case physics, engineering and the like. I cannot comment on their scientific judgements about ALICE; though it is always open to their colleagues have views on this.
Whatever, the investment of significant government monies must also, as numbers of parliamentarians have argued, be about best value in socio-economic terms, as well as indicated by narrower scientific parameters; and the scientists would without doubt agree they are not best placed to adjudicate all this.
Socio-economic impact studies
If the relevant science councils have undertaken regional socio-economic impact studies on their proposed investments, these, like the scientific appraisals, must now be opened to public scrutiny.
If they have not, we must challenge the science councils to undertake these comparative impact studies immediately, before potentially devastating decisions are made.
Added value – or otherwise
Added value‘ (perhaps significantly, a term often used to evaluate the impact of educational initiatives) and ‘unintended consequences‘ (c.f. Robert Merton’s work) may be indices beyond the lexicon of physical science; but, as the rural economists acknowledged after foot and mouth disease, they can never be outside the remit of decisions about big investment, in the public interest, of taxpayers’ money.
A version of this article, entitled ‘Alice in economic context’, was published on the Letters page of Guardian Education on 15 April 2008.
Read more:
Science, Regeneration & Sustainability
Science & Politics

Should We Keep British Summer Time All Year?

U.K. clocks go forward on Sunday morning, 30 March ’08, and the lighter evenings which British Summer Time brings will cheer up almost everyone. But there would also be many other anticipated benefits, from road safety to energy conservation and healthier lifestyles, were we to keep ‘Daylight Saving’ all year. A Downing Street petition has now been set up to urge a continuous BST trial period of three years, with research to establish the extent of these benefits.
‘Daylight Saving’ is an issue which won’t go away. And now there’s a Petition to the Prime Minister, asking him to not to let that precious extra hour of afternoon light go away in the Winter either.
Downing Street petition
The Downing Street petition aims to ‘make better use of the limited daylight we receive’. It reads as follows:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to consider a change to the current system of British Summer Time / Greenwich Mean Time (BST/GMT). This could consist of a trial period (similar to that adopted 1968 to 1971) and could take the form of a move to year round BST, or a 1 hour shift to GMT+1/GMT+2. Research shows that such a move could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce road deaths, facilitate business with Europe, potentially boost tourism, increase outdoor activity, promote healthier lifestyles and enhance the well being of UK citizens.
You can read more detail of the Petition, and / or sign it, here.
BST Facebook group
There is also a Facebook group, set up like the Downing Street petition by Dave Alexander, which seeks to ‘raise support of and debate the possibilities and benefits regarding changes / trials of different time zone options for Britain…..This could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce road deaths, facilitate business with Europe, potentially boost tourism, increase outdoor activity, promote healthier lifestyles and enhance the well being of UK citizens.
An enduring idea
This is by no means a new proposal, as we have already established very firmly on this website, but the need to get some action becomes greater with each year. If further debate is needed, the BST: British Summer Time & ‘Daylight Saving’ section of this weblog remains a forum where everyone from the South coast to scattered Scottish isles is welcome to share their ideas.
Discussion is however no substitute for evidence-based action. Health, energy sustainability and accident prevention are too important to ignore.
This article was also published as a New Start external blog.
Read more: BST: British Summer Time & ‘Daylight Saving’ (The Clocks Go Back & Forward)

Translating Public Policy Into Action

Evidence-based policy is central to much contemporary governmental thinking. But how the different phases of policy delivery can best engage ‘real people’ is not always clear. This is true whether the intended policy concerns health, the knowledge economy, or even global sustainability. There is still much to be done in understanding human agency and interaction in policy development and delivery.
In many aspects of public policy, from health through life-long learning and the economy to global sustainability, it is not simply the science or knowledge base which is important. Of equal, or sometimes greater, importance is an understanding of how to apply the established evidence which informs policy.
Phases in public policy development
There are, or should be, a number of phases in developing public policy.
The first phase is to derive as much consensus as possible about the necessary evidence base (both scientific and contextual) and the second is to consider how this ‘translates’ – an exercise which is currently being taken forward overtly by the government in relation to scientific knowledge, industry and business.
Securing public agreement or at least encouraging constructive and informed public debate is another phase which must run alongside these first two phases.
This ‘third’ phase is at risk when the established modes of policy development continue.
Public debate
The government has now gone some way to seek proper public debate on issues around science, technology, health and so forth. It is not as yet clear however that the corollary of this emphasis has been absorbed by the wider knowledge-related industries or even by some whose task is to deliver policy for real.
We all know that fundamental research and the intricacies of, say, applied medical knowledge are critical for the future. What is less well understood is that there remain huge gaps in our understandings of how such knowledge becomes operational in the real world.
People are what makes things happen. How they do so, in the contexts of such enormous challenges as global warming, the diseases of contemporary societies and the rapidly changing communities we all live in, has yet to be made clear.
Making things happen depends on people
Despite all our problems, many of us in the western world live in the best conditions human beings have ever known. Ensuring this continues and is shared even more widely is very largely a task for policy makers informed by a social rather than natural scientific knowledge base.
Fundamental science certainly needs to remain at the centre of knowledge creation; but, whether in health, industry or the environment, it must be matched by an equally well researched knowledge of the social world, if there is to be any real hope of public policies to sustain all our futures.

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.

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