UK Policy on Science and Innovation: Sustainable development should dictate

Article by Stuart Parkinson, SGR, published in Science and Public Affairs in September 2004
 

Chancellor Gordon Brown’s ten-year investment framework for science and innovation1 is clear that economic priorities are to be given even greater emphasis in shaping UK science. What’s also clear (but you have to look carefully at the detail to find it), is that the military will continue to exercise considerable power over public R&D finances. Currently, the Ministry of Defence is the single largest spender in this area, responsible for 30 per cent of the total budget.2

To give the Government its due, it has identified other key dimensions of science and innovation policy. It mentions the importance of science and technology in contributing to quality of life and environmental sustainability. It also aims to get public services to make better use of scientific research. It even highlights how critical it is to maintain public confidence in the area. But it proposes far too few measures to ensure these issues are tackled.

The Government does not seem to appreciate the scale of the conflict between innovation for these socially responsible needs, on the one hand, and its focus on economic priorities and the pervading influence of the military, on the other.

 

Business tail wags the research dog

Possibly the most important example of this conflict concerns the prominence given in the framework to a large-scale expansion of business-university collaboration.

One of the single biggest factors in public concern over experimental technologies such as GM crops is the way that industry is driving the R&D, especially through the funding of university researchers. The public is justifiably worried that this is leading to the erosion of academic independence and hence the ability to warn of possible damaging side-effects of these technologies.

Furthermore, economic growth, assisted by current patterns of technological development, is driving unsustainable levels of consumption and leading to global environmental problems such as climate change and loss of biodiversity. We will fail to tackle these problems if we do not place much greater emphasis on environmental concerns when deciding what technologies to commercialise.

 

Sustainable development

Given that some commercialisation of science and technology can help tackle important current problems, how can we ensure wide benefits? One critical way is to make sustainable development the driving force behind UK science and innovation policy, instead of just economic growth. a much stronger eironmental criteria withi grant schemes, regulatory measures and other incentives that steer innovation such that these pressing problems are tackled.

Some such steps have already been taken in, for example, the field of sustainable energy, but we need many more. Furthermore, to help us judge when and if innovation is positive from a social/ environmental point of view, there need to be more protected sources of independent, scientific expertise. This could be achieved by the creation of more research centres (especially those with an interdisciplinary focus) which are clearly independent of business.

In parallel with this, there needs to be increased access to scientific expertise by community, environmental and other similar groups so that research can be carried out in areas which they consider a priority. One way of doing this would be to set up a ‘Community Research Council’: one whose funding would only be available for use by public interest groups.

 

Taking on the military

The other main problem with the ten-year framework is the heavy presence of the military. With £2.6 billion of tax-payers’ money currently being spent annually by the Ministry of Defence on R&D3 - larger than all the civil Government departments put together - it is about time a little democratic light was shed on this area. This argument is made all the more compelling in the light of the Chief Scientific Advisor’s assertion that climate change is a more serious threat than terrorism. If this is so, why can the annual public funding of R&D on sustainable energy4 only be measured in tens of millions?

If we make sustainable development the driving force behind all publicly-funded science and innovation, then we should carry out a large-scale transfer of military funding to civil work.

The Blair Government has been good to UK science. Public spending this year on the ‘science and engineering base’ is 54 per cent higher than it was five years ago.5 Tony Blair himself has publicly defended scientists against a ‘culture of unreason’ on issues such as GM crops and animal experiments.6 Gordon Brown’s investment framework includes a further major expansion in funding, together with policies designed to ensure the UK remains a world leader in scientific and technological excellence.

But if the Government is serious about ensuring that UK science and innovation plays a key role in improving the quality of life, it needs to stop the current favouritism given to business and the military. Only through a fresh outlook will we realise the potential of science to contribute meaningfully to achieving sustainable development.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see SGR’s response to the consultation on the ten-year science and innovation investment framework and other related articles at: /SciencePol.html

Dr Stuart Parkinson is the Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR)

 

References

1 HM Treasury, DTI, DfES (2004) Science and innovation framework 2004-2014

2 OST (2003) ‘The Forward Look 2003: Government-funded science, engineering and technology’, OST, London

3 ibid

4 p 122 of HM Treasury, DTI, DfES (2004): as note 1

5 The science and engineering base is made up of the Office of Science and Technology (OST), the seven Research Councils and the Higher Education Funding Councils. Its 2004/05 spending is £4.3 billion. Figures from OST (2003): as note 2

6 Blair T. (2002) ‘Science matters’ Speech to the Royal Society, 23 May