Science Policy and Science Publishing

John Ziman

  • Scientists in Whitehall by Philip Gummett
    Manchester, 245 pp, £14.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 7190 0791 7
  • Development of Science Publishing in Europe edited by A.J. Meadows
    Elsevier, 269 pp, $48.75, October 1980, ISBN 0 444 41915 2

‘Reallocation of Responsibilities of Research Councils: Royal Society opposes Reform’ was probably the runner-up to ‘Small Earthquake in Peru: Not Many Dead’ in the famous competition for the least sensational newspaper headline. Nevertheless, here we are, a generation into the nuclear era. The scientific bureaucrat can no longer be laughed off as a cross between Professor Branestawm and Dr Strangelove. Exactly how scientific expertise should be employed in the affairs of the nation is a central question of modern politics.

The government research laboratory is an intermediate social habitat, not quite self-sufficient in its traditions or its mission, lying across the boundary between the very different domains of academia and the Civil Service. The sociologists of science have given their attention to its academic characteristics: in what way is it an institution where research scientists can seek personal recognition for their contributions to knowledge? There is a substantial literature on the internal management of research organisations: in what way does one get such individualists to work together on appropriate problems? There is, of course, a babble of incoherent argument about science policy: on what problems, at what expense, should government research and development be concentrated?

But very little has been written, from a scholarly point of view, about the interface between the scientific and administrative realms, and about the people whose job it is to make the connections across this interface. Old hands like Solly Zuckerman tell us how it was for them, and perceptive novelists such as Nigel Balchin, William Cooper and C.P. Snow expose much that is true in the guise of fiction. Drawing upon a variety of sources – reports of Royal Commissions, obiter dicta of scientific notables, newspaper editorials etc – Dr Gummett gives us the first coherent, objective, yet sympathetic analysis of the current situation and its historical background.

Most important, our scientists are still, as the famous phrase goes, ‘on tap’: they have never succeeded in getting ‘on top’. Whether academically employed in very basic research, or organised directly for technological development, they now depend almost entirely on funding by the state or by large industrial corporations. There is not really a government science system, or a science budget, because these funds flow along a variety of channels, but their eventual use is more closely controlled by non-scientific authorities than ever.

Long ago, when all research was done on a shoestring, anyway, scientists who were directly employed by the government, along with industrial research workers, had a very inferior status in the scientific community. Authority was firmly in the hands of the ‘academics’, who worked in universities or in the quasi-academic laboratories of Quangos such as the Medical and Agricultural Research Councils. Indeed, scientific notables such as the officers of the Royal Society were treated with great deference – on a par with the archbishops of the Established Church – in Whitehall.

After the Second World War, the money came pouring in, to buy far more science for society. For about twenty years the system expanded, largely under the leadership of its traditional élite. Although of course a great deal of this money was spent on the harshly technological development of such intractable devices as nuclear reactors and aero-engines, the ideology of basic research was still dominant: knowledge was to be valued as much for its own sake as for any benefits it might bring. This ideology was even fostered in strictly mission-oriented institutions such as the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and could thus claim lip-service throughout all government science. The peasantry of applied science could in this way hope to enrich itself, so to speak, and to unite with the aristocracy of pure science in an autonomous estate of the nation.

This hope has not been fulfilled. The traditional snobbery of academia towards government and industry has been much muted, but mainly because academia has itself been cut down to size. Dr Gummett gives a full account of the two major battles where the scientific community learnt the limits of its aspirations. The first was over British participation in the construction of a new 300 GeV particle accelerator at the European Centre for Nuclear Research at Geneva – at a cost of £20 million, or so. A conflict between ever-expanding research costs and the finite resources of the Exchequer was inevitable: but the government decision against this project in 1968 took a surprisingly painful toll in disillusioned nuclear physicists. This long-drawn-out conflict not only pushed the science policy machine into a permanently defensive posture against Treasury economisers: it also demolished the notion of a united front for science, as chemists split with physicists on the fundamental issue of the benefits to be derived from the project.

The second significant event was the debate over ‘Rothschild’ – that is, the report in 1971 by Lord Rothschild, head of the government ‘Think Tank’, on the organisation and management of government R & D. His crude demand that research results should be supplied, on ‘contract’, for the ‘customers’ that were buying them, was a direct challenge to the academic ideology, and was bitterly opposed in a rearguard action by the scientific élite. As Dr Gummett correctly reports, the resulting modifications in the machinery of the research councils, in the administration of research within various government departments, and in notional cash flows between these diverse organs of the body politic, have made very little difference to the detail of who does what research on which problems. Nor does it seem to have had much effect on the morale of research workers at the laboratory bench, whose main cause for concern in the past ten years has been serious deterioration in their terms of employment and pay. But the scientific notables now understand that they can no longer justify large expenditure on basic research with the vague promise of beneficial ‘spin-off’. However eloquently they may continue to preach the simple gospel of the untrammelled search for knowledge, they know in their own hearts that this is not a faith on which they can rely for their daily bread. This disillusionment was inevitable: yet it may have a more significant effect on the social role of science than direct administrative and financial constraints.

The human qualities of the leaders of science is much more important than one might think. The scientific community is not very hierarchical in its internal affairs, but has very narrow gateways into other communities. Such gateways, especially those leading into the government machine, are kept by members of the scientific élite, in their official roles as advisers, chief scientists, council chairmen etc. One of the most instructive chapters of this book discusses the curricula vitae of such notables and the qualities they must bring to their tasks.

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