Skip to content

Blogosphere erupts over science’s “Faustian bargain”

March 2, 2012

It all started when Nature’s chief online editor Ananyo Bhattacharya penned an article in the Guardian on 23 Feb. That article, called “Scientists have sold their souls – and basic research – to business”, argued that UK politicians’ expectations of impact and commercial relevance from science are a product of the New Labour years.

During that time, Bhattacharya noted, some sociologists of science “argued persuasively that research lay at the heart of sustainable economic growth and should serve the public interest – so persuasively, in fact, that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in government or opposition who disagrees”.

By the next day, the online words were flying.

In a comment on the article, Kieron Flanagan disputed the history of economic justification for science, saying that far from being a creation of New Labour it actually dates back to 1945:

I agree that it makes no sense to try to fix this problem by interfering in the part of the system that actually is world-class. As a social researcher, I don’t object to the ‘impact agenda’ on principle, I just worry about the silly way it is being implemented. I would respectfully suggest that the problem lies with the all-pervading idea of ‘basic’ research itself, which can’t any longer sustain the weight of expectation piled upon it between 1945 and today.

Meanwhile, in a post on the blog SomeBeans, Unilever scientist Ian Hopkinson pointed out that the assertion that profit motives don’t produce game-changing ideas and inventions is plain wrong:

Have you heard of the Industrial Revolution? Do you know that that power is measured in Watts, after the steam engine designer James Watt or that the units of energy, Joules, are named for James Joule a brewer at the forefront of technological improvements for his brewery. What about the transistor, invented at Bell Labs? How about Lavoiser and the foundations of chemistry?

A coincidental article in the New York Times last week described in more detail the innovation that took place at Bell Labs. Journalist Jon Gertner describes a research culture that was deliberate and interested in playing the long game, that had the luxury of solid financial footing (a product of AT&T’s monopoly in the US) and so could invest in research with a distant, or nonexistent, payoff in sight.

This he contrasts with the deliver-now, fix-later mentality of today’s big innovation firms like Apple and Google, which rush to bring us tomorrow’s technology but not the kind of technology that, like the transistor, will form the basis of entirely new economies in 50 or 100 years.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the debate over Bhattacharya’s original article raged on. On Monday Imran Khan and Stephen Curry co-authored an article in the Guardian to argue that Bhattacharya’s piece ignored “the obvious questions of why the taxpayer should fund science, and how the science community should make that case”.

It is reasonable, they argued, for the government to rely on scientists to answer societally important scientific questions – and, though imperfect, “impact” measures of some sort are essential to assess which societally important research should take precedence.

However, the discussion and debate about how to measure and fund is not yet a fully-fledged one, they say:

There is no question of abandoning blue-skies research, but rather of finding an agreed balance between curiosity-driven science and applied work. In a democratic society that is something that scientists and politicians and the public should be talking about, but – by and large – we do not.

Stephen Curry continued the debate on Occam’s Typewriter, where a good discussion unfolded in the comments section. Curry raises an interesting question about whether muddied prerogatives between Research Councils and Government might be part of the problem:

I noticed on Twitter that you suspect the RC chiefs of being too close to government and dancing to their tune. I share some of those concerns – but who knows what goes on behind closed doors. If we are worried about that, then it is for the scientific community to make sure that these chiefs get the message from the shop-floor about how we want to see things done. Tension is perhaps inevitable. I’ve seen it in the BBSRC and the EPSRC’s difficulties, which Ananyo dwelt on, were splashed all over the papers. Such arguments will hopefully more scientists to get involved in the discussion.

And over on the blog for the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, Britt Holbrook carried on another branch of the discussion. Bhattacharya reappeared in the comments to clarify his original argument, saying that “adding an ‘impact statement’ to a grant application doesn’t help the process but rather contributes to the ‘over promising’ on benefits that Kieron points out has been going on since 1945”.

But, David Bruggeman argued, “If a scientist can’t figure out the broader context of his research, I don’t think they deserve public funding.” However, if the flaw is just in the current impact measures being used, then, he said,

that’s an argument I want to hear. The problem is that it’s easy to characterize the rhetoric around this discussion as ‘trust us and leave us alone,’ or ‘we’ll simply be deceiving people’ which I’m not sure even Haldane would be sanguine with. If people think impact measures will be seen as deceptive, it’s hard to see how the absence of measures will be taken as more honest, much less transparent.

In the end, one of the more thoughtful summations of the forces at work came from Richard Jones, professor at Sheffield University. In a comment on Occam’s Typewriter he gives one possible explanation for why, when the large innovation firms like Bell Labs faded, nimble Google and Apple didn’t fill their shoes in terms of R&D:

The causes for this probably include privatisation (for example the privatisation of the energy industry has meant a massive decrease in applied energy research, at a time when this is needed more than ever), and the fact that financial deregulation has meant that there have been other opportunities to extract larger short-term gains from capital than doing R&D.

The result of all this is that research in the university sector, as the only part of the overall R&D enterprise that is still flourishing, finds itself exposed to higher expectations to deliver economic growth.

But the debate is far from settled. In straitened times, does science that serves a public interest deserve dibs on public money? If yes, how do we evaluate what science best serves that interest? It’s a discussion that we here on PST are interested to continue having…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 11:32 am

    Anyone interested in this argument should read Tim Harford’s book, Adapt, in which he argues that we must get used to the inherant failure of research.

    Shameless plug: I wrote a short synopsis of some of his ideas on encouraging research and innovation a while ago here:


  1. Blogosphere erupts over science’s “Faustian bargain” « Purse String Theory | csid
  2. A Day Late For Leather « Pasco Phronesis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: