White heat — at last

By | August 22, 2021

For fifty years, British governments have tried to reverse the real and perceived decline of the country’s relative economic and political clout. The decline – which economic historians date from the climax of British imperial power around 1870 – has often been attributed to a deep-seated, almost cultural, national hatred for science and technology.

This malaise was expressed most forcefully and famously by C. P. Snow, who in 1959 described the “two cultures” of scientific and non-scientific in Britain, arguing strongly that the latter always had the upper hand. Snow’s diagnosis was accepted by, among others, Harold Wilson, a technocrat who was elected as Labor Prime Minister after pledging to build a new Britain in the “white heat” of the Scientific and Technological Revolution.

But Wilson’s four governments, like other governments before and after, were unable or unwilling to gain real control over the issue of science and innovation. In a country beset by economic and political crises, as Britain had for most of the 1960s to 1980s, prime ministers and chancellors had other fish to fry. Economic solvency and industrial peace were always his elusive goals; Modernization of science base will have to wait.

Since its nadir in the 1970s, there is no doubt that a sense of confidence has re-emerged, and with it science and technology. This can be attributed at least to Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist whose hatred of the British academic class was to an unhealthy degree when she was prime minister. However, his combative approach was necessary to shake Britain’s universities and laboratories from the decency to which many of them had spent a large part of the twentieth century.

Now, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his friend, rival and successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown, are united in their genuine commitment to science and innovation. A change in government is not expected in next year’s elections, but even if it does, the current government’s level of commitment to science can and should be maintained.

joint action

The latest expression of that commitment, after a series of critical reviews into key aspects of science and technology policy, is a consultation document on the Ten-Year Investment Strategy for Science and Innovation, launched last week by Brown and fellow ministers.

The source of the document is important because in Britain so much real financial power does not lie with elected representatives or even great departments of state, but with the Mandarins of Her Majesty’s Treasury. Snow regarded high-level Treasury officials – traditionally educated in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University – as symbols of the crisis he had diagnosed. The importance of Brown’s insistence on his commitment to science and innovation cannot be underestimated.

The document, the exact financial implications of which will not be clear until a later year, makes a good effort to identify the key questions and problems that need to be addressed in the British research system. Its authors deserve praise from the scientific community, which has established these issues and proposes to attack them not on the basis of some flashy initiatives, but on the basis of concrete action in a realistic period.

But both what is discussed in the document and what is not, there is also cause for alarm. It emphasizes enhanced linkages between the university and industry. The notion that more industrial participation in university departments is a ‘good thing’ was certainly valid twenty years ago. However, much has changed since then, and the industrial links gained by strong departments at British universities are now pretty solid.

Business requires more movement than academia: with a few exceptions (mainly in the pharmaceutical industry), British industrial companies are amateurish and lax in their approach to research and development.

The government’s tax incentives for business research and development are commendable. But the insistence that universities put even more effort into solving economic problems could undermine academic creativity that history proves to be an important source of profound technological innovation.

bureaucratic burden

Alarm bells should also ring in response to the document’s suggestion that universities achieve a full return on their costs “at the project level”. The idea that they can plan for a sustainable future when faculty staff and other core costs depend on individual research grants is a nonsense.

This is a recipe for even more bureaucracy. It is essential that the system of funding British universities, which is currently being reformed by the government, lessens the burden of evaluation that has been borne by academics.

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