Science and Innovation: Working towards a 10 year investment framework - SGR Response

SGR Response to consultation on UK Government paper, 2004
 

SGR is a UK-based organisation whose aim is to promote ethical science and technology, based on the principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice and environmental sustainability. Our membership includes some 600 scientists and technologists.

We welcome this opportunity to input to the Government's deliberations on a ten-year strategy for science and innovation.

Note: Our response is, in the main, an answer to Question 1 of the consultation, concerning issues such as the target areas for UK science and innovation, the components of success, and roles of Government and other funders. Where our response also relates to other questions, these will be marked in the text.

 

Summary

We are pleased to see this Government devoting much more attention to the issue of science, engineering and technology (SET) than its predecessors, and welcome recent increases in public funding for this area. However, the ideas and proposals outlined in the consultation document and other related reviews have, we believe, three serious shortcomings:

  1. Too much focus on economic growth at the expense of sustainable development;

  2. Too much focus on business-university partnerships;
  3. No discussion of the role of the military in shaping UK SET.

Hence, we make a series of recommendations aimed at rectifying these problems, including:

  1. Make sustainable development the driving force of UK SET policy (covering research, innovation and education);

  2. Begin a large-scale shift of military funding for SET to civil work;
  3. Protect the independence of scientific advice by, for example, designating a large number of university research centres (including a significant number investigating social/ environmental issues) as only to be supporting by broadly-based public interest funding bodies (eg Research Councils);
  4. Provide much greater support for individuals and small businesses involved in the commercialisation of technologies with clear environmentally or socially beneficial aims, especially 'intermediate' technologies;
  5. Create a multi-million pound science and technology fund for use by civil society organisations and community groups.


1. Too much focus on economic growth at the expense of sustainable development

The strategy is mainly driven by a narrow focus on supporting economic growth, especially in its ideas for business-university collaboration. Although the consultation document does include a short section on 'science in society', and occasionally mentions the contribution of science, engineering and technology (SET) to quality of life and the effectiveness of public services, it is short on detail, and makes little attempt to address likely conflicts between economic and other objectives (Q2, Q9, Q12, Q17).

Instead, SGR believes that the strategy should be driven by a broader sustainable development agenda, with the focus on applied science and innovation supporting the well-being of society and the environment, with economic objectives shaped to contribute to this wider goal. Indicators should be developed to assess the degree to which science and innovation contributes to sustainable development (Q2). Education for science and technology students (and indeed all others) should strongly promote an understanding of sustainable development (Q10, Q11).

SGR's criticisms reflect those made very recently by one of the Government's own advisory bodies (SDC, 2004), which argued that the goal of sustainable development has not yet been integrated into many Government policies. The proposed ten-year science and innovation strategy is a stark example of this lack of integration.

 

2. Too much focus on business-university partnerships

A key focus of the strategy is on rapid large-scale expansion of business-university collaboration, but little attention is given to the problem that such an expansion is very likely to erode the independence of academic institutions, with serious consequences (Q9, Q12, Q13).

The first problem is that research would be steered towards areas which can yield a commercial return, so that work developing a new product or process would likely be prioritised over, for example, work examining environmental or human health impacts of an existing product or process. One stark example is research carried out in UK universities relevant to the oil and gas extraction sector. A recent investigation (Mutitt, 2003) highlighted that just 2% of this research is directed towards assessing environmental impacts, while most of the rest is focussed on improving the efficiency of oil and gas discovery and extraction.

A second problem is that business involvement does, often unconsciously, bias the results of research in its favour. The evidence of such an effect has been most rigorously documented in the pharmaceutical sector, an area where the UK is a world leader. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analysed the results of 370 randomised drug trials for a range of confounding influences (Als-Nielson et al, 2003). The article clearly showed the conclusions of drug trials were more in favour of the drug intervention when financially supported by the companies in comparison with those supported by non-profit organisations. The authors of the study cited eight other large-scale studies which supported its conclusions.

A further problem is that closer ties between business and universities will mean that much more scientific research will be classified as commercially confidential, and not open to scrutiny. The widespread imposition of intellectual property rights on research could seriously undermine rigorous scientific work. Concern about this issue has even been expressed by bodies like the Royal Society (2003).

These three problems caused by greater business involvement in the research and development process are likely to cause wider detrimental effects. The ability of scientists to effectively assess the risks of introducing emerging technologies (eg nanotechnology) will be undermined, and consequently so will the Government's ability to regulate such technologies. One serious effect of this is that the risk of society becoming 'locked-in' to technologies which are later found to cause social and/ or environmental problems will be increased. A parallel consequence will be that public trust will be eroded, with some justification, in the integrity of the scientific establishment (Q12). We have witnessed this effect all too clearly in the debate over GM crops.

A greater role for business in shaping the SET education agenda could also have negative effects (Q10). Again without more emphasis on sustainable development as a guiding principle, young scientists and engineers are more likely to move into a career without properly considering the social and environmental ramifications. Furthermore, those that do consider sustainable development principles to be important are more likely to become disillusioned with science and technology and leave. This is an effect that SGR has witnessed firsthand through direct contact with many young scientists and engineers as part of our 'Thinking about an ethical career in science and technology' programme (see /ethics.html for more details of this work).

Hence SGR believes that the proposed expansion of business-university collaboration, especially in the absence of an underlying sustainable development agenda, is more likely to exacerbate social and environmental problems rather alleviate them.

 

3. No opportunity to discuss the role of the military in shaping UK science, engineering and technology

The strategy fails to even acknowledge, let alone make recommendations on, the massive amount of scientific and technological work funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) (Q17). (This is an area of particular concern to SGR, and we will shortly be publishing a report on the subject.)

For many decades, the MoD's SET budget has been a substantial fraction of UK public funding in this area. Even now, fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, approximately one-third of all public funding for SET is spent by the MoD, amounting to £2.4 billion (OST, 2003). This is considerably higher than any civil Government Dept and more even than the whole UK science base. This funding has a high degree of influence within SET, and there is clearly high level support in Government for its continuation. For example, in the last few years we have seen the Government (through the MoD and/ or DTI) be a driving force in several major new military SET initiatives involving industry and universities, for example, Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships (DARPs), Towers of Excellence (ToEs) and Defence Technology Centres (DTCs). Further, even the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston is expanding its facilities (AWE, 2003), in apparent contradiction of the UK's commitments under the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The vast majority of military SET is focussed on the development of military technology, rather than for example research and analysis of the root causes of conflict. Indeed the MoD recently admitted that only 6% of its budget was spent on conflict prevention (Conscience, 2004). This is a serious imbalance. Clearly it is more important to understand and prevent conflict rather than develop new ways of fighting wars. This is especially necessary given the upsurge in terrorism internationally which is so hard to tackle using conventional military technology. This has been recognised by some academics, as reflected in the Economic and Social Research Council's New Security Challenges programme, but its funding is tiny compared to the MoD SET budget (ESRC, 2003).

Moreover, it is clear from official documents and web-sites (eg DESO, 2004) that a major reason for the MoD focus on military technology is economics, due to large international sales. But there is concrete evidence that UK arms sales are contributing to human rights abuses and exacerbating conflict (eg CAAT, 2004), while many economic benefits are eroded through indirect subsidies, eg export credit. This state of affairs adds to the negative image that SET has amongst prospective science and engineering students. Hence there are very good reasons why a large-scale shift from military SET to civil SET would be desirable.

Unfortunately, this ten-year science and innovation strategy (and indeed other public dialogues on science and innovation) completely avoids this issue. SGR believes that the degree of military involvement in SET should be a question to be discussed as part of defining this strategy. Further, as stated above, we believe there are compelling grounds for a shift in funding from military to civil SET.

 

4. Potential Solutions

In this section, we make some specific suggestions to tackle the problems highlighted above. In particular, these suggestions aim to: safeguard the independence and reliability of scientific work; ensure that commercialisation of science and technology is compatible with sustainable development; and expand the involvement of civil society organisations, community groups and the wider public in decisions over what scientific research is carried out and what technologies are developed.

  1. Designate a large number of university research centres/ departments to be funded only by Research Councils and/ or other broadly-based public interest bodies, and thus insulate them from powerful vested interests (ie large corporations and the military) which may cause, or be seen to cause, significant bias in the research (Q2, Q8, Q12, Q18). These research institutions should necessarily include many which are cross-disciplinary examining social and/ or environmental issues.

  2. Support existing and, if necessary, create new centres for the social and/ or environmental assessment of emerging technologies (eg nanotechnology). These must be completely independent from those involved in developing/ commercialising such emerging technologies (Q2, Q8, Q12, Q18). Their work should include carrying out assessments which have a high degree of public participation, using such processes as citizen juries and deliberative mapping (Q12).
  3. Provide greater support (eg funding) for individuals and small businesses involved in the commercialisation of technologies with clear environmentally or socially beneficial aims (Q3, Q13). Particular attention should be given to 'intermediate' technologies, which are less likely to have disruptive side-effects. One way this could be carried out is by creating a dedicated programme within the National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).
  4. Set up a programme to assess the contribution of academic work to sustainable development on a university-by-university basis, in particular looking at each institution's business collaborations (Q2, Q12). This could, for example, be run as a programme of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC).
  5. Create a multi-million pound science and technology fund which is directed by civil society organisations and community groups to respond to their own concerns (Q12, Q17, Q18). This could be carried out through the creation of a new 'Civil Society Research Council' using funding previously spent on military SET. Projects supported by this new fund could include Science Shops (which are now being supported by the European Commission's Research Directorate).

Concluding comments

SGR believes it is critical that the ten-year UK science and innovation strategy is driven by a sustainable development agenda, with concrete measures to protect scientific institutions from the undue influence of powerful narrow interests such as large corporations and the military. If this does not happen, we do not see a bright future for science or society.

 

References

1 Als-Nielson B, Chen W, Gluud C, Kjaergard L L (2003) Association of funding and conclusions in randomised drug trials. Journal of American Medical Association, no. 290, p921-928.

2AWE (2003) Annual Report 2002. Atomic Weapons Establishment, Aldermaston. http://www.awe.co.uk/

3 CAAT (2004) Fanning the flames: how UK arms sales fuel conflict. Campaign Against the Arms Trade, London. http://www.caat.org.uk/

4 Conscience (2004) Answer to a Parliamentary question tabled by Adam Price MP: reported in Conscience Update, 123, Winter.

5 DESO (2004) Why export defence goods and services? Defence Export Services Organisation. http://www.deso.mod.uk/policy.htm

6 ESRC (2003) A new approach to world security. Social Sciences - News from the ESRC, no 55, p8-10. Economic and Social Research Council. See also: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/esrccontent/ourresearch/NewSecurityChallenges.asp

7 Muttitt G. (2003) Degrees of Capture: Universities, the oil industry and climate change. Corporate Watch, Oxford. http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/

8OST (2003) Science, Engineering and Technology statistics. Office of Science and Technology, London. http://www.ost.gov.uk/setstats/

9 Royal Society (2003) Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property rights policy on the conduct of science. London. http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/

10 SDC (2004) Shows promise - but must try harder. Sustainable Development Commission, London. http://www.sd-commission.gov.uk/