How should UK science be funded?

This article by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, is reprinted with minor revisions from SGR Newsletter Number 23, July 2001
 

The problem

In December 2000, the University of Nottingham accepted £3.8 million from British American Tobacco to contribute towards the setting up of an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. Given the questionable ethical record of this company, one wonders how its sponsorship will affect the direction of research that the centre takes.

This case highlights the growing problem that scientists in the UK (and elsewhere) face: that they increasingly have to rely on funding from or linked to commercial sources with narrow economic interests. One of the main drivers of this is the drop in UK Government funding for scientific research and development, which fell by 17% between 1987 and 1999 [1]. Whilst Government funding is set to increase over the next few years, it is conditional on greater involvement of the private sector, as stated in the recent White Paper on science and technology [2]. Indeed, in 1995 the Government's Office of Science and Technology (OST) was moved from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Trade and Industry to facilitate this closer collaboration.

It could be argued that the 22% of government funding for UK science which is directed through the seven research councils (MRC, EPSRC, BBSRC, NERC, ESRC, AFRC, PPARC) can be thought of as an 'independent' funding source for scientists since each council has its own steering committee which does not have to justify itself to the government. However, membership of these panels increasingly includes large numbers of industrialists. The justification for this is that science and technology should be directed towards applied goals. However, if such goals are defined in narrow commercial terms, they can compromise other social and environmental needs of society.

And private companies are not the only powerful vested interest which funds science and technology in the UK. Another important one is the military. According to latest figures from the OST [3], one-third of UK government funding for science, engineering and technology comes from the Ministry of Defence. This amounts to £2.1 billion a year. In comparison, the Dept of Environment, Transport and the Regions is responsible for less than 3% of government funding of science and technology. [The department is now DEFRA and the updated figures will be published shortly - Ed]

The significant presence of such vested interests strongly influences the direction of science and technology. Further, the government has recently admitted that in 1999 it spent £52 million on research into the agricultural applications of genetic engineering - thirty times that spent on research on organic farming methods [5]. Meanwhile, the UK arms industry continues to be a major source of export earnings: currently about £5 billion a year [6].

Military, commercial and even government aims often do not coincide with the important aims in which SGR believes, ie social justice and environmental sustainability. Is the international arms trade consistent with social justice? Is the continued large-scale combustion of fossil fuels consistent with environmental sustainability? And hence, should we rely on science and technology funded mainly from these sources?

Possible solutions?

Science and technology needs to contribute to building social justice and environmental sustainability. The funding of science needs to be set up to ensure this.

One solution is to increase the funding of the UK research councils (so that commercial science is not as dominant) and make the steering committees more 'balanced', ie include scientist and lay representatives from social/ environmental non-governmental organisations.

Another possible solution is to 'redirect' some of the research funding of commercial organisations to more explicitly fulfill social and environmental goals. This could be done by some form of taxation, the proceeds of which are placed in charitable trusts administered by social/ environmental organisations.

In conclusion, I am not arguing that there should not be any funding for science and technology from commercial or military sources. I am simply arguing that, as it stands, the system is heavily weighted towards these interests and hence the scientific knowledge produced will often not be geared towards the best interests of society and the wider environment. More 'balance' in science would, I believe, be achieved by a much greater input and influence from social and environmental non-governmental organisations.

References

[1] OST (2000a) Science, Engineering and Technology Statistics 2000. Office of Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry. http://www.dti.gov.uk/ost/setstats/index.htm

[2] OST (2000b) Science and Innovation. White Paper. July. Office of Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry.

[3] as [1]

[4] G. Muttitt, C. Grimshaw (2000) Degrees of Involvement: An examination of the the relationship between the upstream oil and gas industry and UK higher education institutions. CorporateWatch.

[5] p275 of G. Monbiot (2000) Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain. Macmillan.

[6] DESO (2001) Why Export Defence Goods and Services? Defence Export Services Organisation, Ministry of Defence, UK. http://www.deso.mod.uk/deso/policy%20whole.htm (viewed 17/5/01)