Seductive Intentions

John Ziman

  • A Science Policy for Britain by Tam Dalyell
    Longman, 135 pp, £5.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 582 90257 6

‘Science policy’ is not quite a contradiction in terms but it contains within itself a dialectical opposition between careful planning and the exploitation of opportunity. One might describe it as a strategy for groping around an unfamiliar blacked-out room. On the one hand, the results of research cannot be foreseen: if that were possible, then the research would not be worth doing. The prime characteristic of scientific work is the indeterminacy of its outcome. Every research project is essentially a step into the unknown. On the other hand, research projects have to be planned and executed with meticulous care. There is no human artefact so exquisitely designed as a space probe or particle accelerator. Big science experiments demand the co-ordinated efforts of people who have been trained for years in narrowly-specialised skills, brought together into teams within large, highly-organised institutions. Every research project is an action with a very conscious purpose.

Science policy is thus a rationale for intentional action under conditions of inherent uncertainty. This contradiction between uncertainty and intention cannot be resolved by some trick of logic. That is why debates on science policy are often so inconclusive: the parties stand firmly at opposite poles, and shout past each other. If, like Tam Dalyell, your basic political philosophy is progressive, then you seize upon the intentional character of science, and make your case on the assumption that well-planned research is an effective way of opening a path to any desired goal. What society can get out of science looks cheap at the price: if science can give us productive industry, thriving agriculture, a clean environment, and even happy families living in cosy homes, then we can scarcely have too much of it. As he says, the Medical, Agricultural and Science and Engineering Research Councils have no public enemies: ‘what politician is going to admit to being against healing, food production or science itself?’

But if the watchword happens to be economy, then every long-term research project looks scandalously vague and irrelevant, and offers itself to the Chancellor’s pruning knife. From this pole of the dialectic, it is not so difficult to understand why, as he says, ‘the British Government, unlike any other government in the modern world, is retreating from the consensus of the post-war world: that the state has an essential role in financing strategic and vital civil research.’ It cannot be – surely? – that the Thatcherites are against healing, food production or even science itself: they are simply not in a mood to raise their stake in the research councils and universities by tens or hundreds of millions with no more than a prospect of unspecifiable benefits in a remote future. In fact, there would probably be a handsome pay-off in the end.

The same dialectic polarises the standard debate on the weight that ought to be given to scientific advice in government policy. The progressive emphasises the past achievements of science and attributes them to its purposiveness and predictive power, thus justifying a more influential role for scientists in the machinery of government. The conservative, by contrast, points to the doubts and dissensions amongst scientists on all matters beyond the established borders of knowledge, and asks whether there is much to be gained by adding another dubious ingredient to the witches’s brew of conflicting interests and opinions from which policies eventually emerge. From this point of view, the work of the Economic and Social Research Council would look particularly suspect, not necessarily for sinister or obscurantist reasons, but simply because its research programmes and research results are usually so controversial and in-conclusive that they are ineffectual in the policy arena. Dalyell is right, of course, to attack the anti-intellectual spirit that inflames this opinion, and to denounce the general scientific (and social-scientific) illiteracy of the vast majority of the denizens of Westminster and Whitehall: but these are cultural afflictions that go too deep to be stitched up by science policy alone.

The title of this book, offering ‘a science policy’, thus, in the singular, is, of course, a banner planted boldly at the pole of intentionality. It suggests an orderly plan by which the demons of uncertainty might be subdued. Dalyell clearly believes that there ought to be such a plan ‘based on economics related to specific criteria’, but is not so rash as to expound it systematically, or even to indicate its scope. His proposals are tactical rather than strategic, which is not surprising in a book that has been put together out of the short pieces on science and government that he has contributed each week to New Scientist over the past 13 years. But he deals trenchantly with a multitude of particular issues, such as inaction on the reports of select committees, the relationships between the research councils and government departments, the blighted careers of young academic scientists, the lack of communication between universities and industry, and many similar ills. Generally speaking, his diagnosis is sound. But his treatment for the legion of ailments afflicting British science is much the same in every case. Dalyell is always for the expansion of science in scope and influence, and he stands up loyally for any part of the research system that comes under attack, whether it is very academic research on nuclear structure, or a very utilitarian establishment devoted to the design of ships. What he means by ‘a science policy’ is a policy that favours science, come hell or high water.

This comes out very clearly in his main argument for his most sustained proposal: that Britain should have a Minister for Science. As he says, this person would commit the country nationally and internationally to the cause of science, and would also be a powerful champion of government laboratories threatened with closure or privatisation. Dalyell’s political savvy rightly informs him that science needs more personal support at the political centre if it is to have much more influence on political affairs. But what he does not tackle is the question whether research would be undertaken and applied more effectively by a more centralised system: there is much to be said for competitive pluralism in the patronage of research, to match the competitive plurality of methods and insights in the research community. Once again, however, he is underestimating the uncertainty factor. This cannot be held in check by the weight of authority, whether political or intellectual. Cabinet committees can be baffled by the conflicting scientific opinions that come to them, for example, in the form of disputed technical evidence at planning inquiries: there is no reason to suppose that the Royal Society would adjudicate on such matters more wisely, as Dalyell proposes. Nor do we have the resources to buy our way out of uncertainty by continually expanding the research system to cover every eventuality. This is what happened for a while in defence research and development, until it looked like beggaring the nation.

Any realistic policy for science must accommodate the awkward uncertainties along with the seductive intentions. The challenge is to devise administrative structures and procedures that can hold these contraries together in dynamic tension. We can see what not to do by looking at some of the changes imposed on the research system in the last few years. Consider, for example, a fictitious research council or government research establishment with a worthy public mission – something like ‘Ecological Hygiene’. Until about ten years ago, the ‘Ecological Hygiene Establishment’ would have been a little world apart. The staff would all have been on permanent tenure, and the research budget would have been stable. In drawing up their research programme, the director and his senior scientific colleagues would have been mindful of the medico-environmental problems they were supposed to be solving, but would often see them as too difficult to be tackled directly. These problems would then be translated into more basic scientific questions which looked easier – and more rewarding – to answer. The staff of EHE would thus be able to exercise considerable purposiveness in pursuing long-term investigations, even though their goals were not clearly defined in relation to human needs, and they could largely discount the personal consequences of failure. In other words, a balance between intentionality and uncertainty could be achieved, but it would not be very dynamic, and could easily slacken into academicism and intellectual complacency. EHE would have been doing quite good work by international scientific standards, but might have seemed very unresponsive to the concerns of the real world.

It was this disease of academicism and practical irrelevance that was going to be cured by the ‘customer-contractor principle’ recommended by Lord Rothschild in 1971. From now on, EHE would have to earn part of its income by undertaking specific research projects directly commissioned by government departments, acting as ‘customers’s on behalf of the public. Thus, the Department of Health and Social Security might commission research from EHE on, say, the disposal of disposable nappies, which was becoming a bit of a public nuisance. This was not, of course, the sort of question to arouse the enthusiasm of a senior principal scientific officer dreaming of election to the Royal Society, but a few thousand pounds would be transferred notionally from one government account to another and some poor devil of a research assistant would have to go out on the job, and perhaps solve the problem.

Tam Dalyell was scornful of the Rothschild scheme when it was first proposed, and condemns it now that it is in action. There has certainly been a shift from relatively long-term research programming, with unpredictable outcomes, to rather pedestrian short-term investigations which are more immediately and obviously useful, and where the risk of failure is slight. But the element of uncertainty in the enterprise has not really been reduced: it has simply been transferred to the administrative sphere. Senior scientific staff in places like EHE now have to spend a large part of their time touting for research contracts to keep their laboratories in funds, and everybody is trembling for his or her job. Meanwhile basic science is being seriously neglected, and some of the major functions of government science, such as the survey work of the Institute of Geological Sciences, are being cut back because they cannot attract ‘customers’s in advance of obtaining results.

Privatisation carries the Rothschild principle into the realm of the absurd. Is there a market for ‘Ecological Hygiene’? A few very large firms can take the risks of long-term research and development where this offers the promise of successful industrial innovation with large commercial profits. Otherwise, only low-risk, short-term research projects are saleable in the private sector. In due course, the Government will be forced to put its own funds back into the big, vague programmes whose potential benefits could only go to the community as a whole. The future of British science cannot possibly lie with a medley of privatised institutions competing frantically for research contracts.

Nevertheless, there is no going back to the era of the quasi-academic, quasi-autonomous research establishment, funded in perpetuity by an inattentive government. EHE may well have exhausted its mission, or lost its intellectual drive, and the right thing to do might well be to close it down or merge it with some other establishment. However wisely a research programme may have been devised, and a team put together to carry it out, it cannot last for ever. As science itself progresses, its own plans and intentions are superseded. Successful researchers are always at risk of working themselves out of a job. The uncertainty element in every research programme expands, and must eventually triumph over the force of intention.

Scientists and scientific organisations are admired more for persistence than for flexibility of response. It is often said that the most difficult part of research management is not to start projects, but to stop them. A realistic policy for science would not be soft and permissive: it would be built around an administrative structure and employment practices where these hard decisions can be taken on good grounds, without causing unwarranted hardship to innocent individuals. Universities shirk such decisions, which run directly counter to the tradition of academic autonomy – but they are not necessarily any the happier or healthier for it. One or two of the research councils and government departments, on the other hand, have developed very effective procedures of institutional review, where external assessors are called in periodically to report on past achievements, present capabilities and the likely prospects of research units and establishments, and to advise on their future. Dalyell’s chivalrous impulse to jump to the defence of every scientific institution threatened with closure may not always be a service to science or to the nation.