Ongoing UK Research Problems (8) – Science Means Business

(November 9th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

The appointment of Mark Walport as head of UKRI continues the UK government’s apparently inexorable conviction that scientific research should, above all, be directed towards commercial application and economic growth. Already as chief scientific adviser, Walport had raised some eyebrows when he defined his key themes for science advice and prioritised economic goals. Speaking at the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University, Walport highlighted five key themes for scientific advice in Government and the first of these was “ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth”. It is perhaps not coincidental that the Centre where he spoke is sponsored, among other large corporations, by BAE Systems (the UK’s largest arms manufacturer), BP (the UK’s biggest oil company) and the huge Lloyds Banking Group.

Faced with such priorities, academic scientists in universities might wonder about the future support for research that is not considered sufficiently directed towards ‘economic growth’, an impression that has been reinforced by the introdcution of ‘impact’ assessment criteria in the last research assessment exercise, REF 2014. Impact was defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”, and analysis of case studies particularly indicated the judges’ preference for “narratives of economic impact”.

As CSA, Walport had also been accused of actively supporting the government’s economic position, advocating science for business policy rather than providing balanced science advice. In the Guardian, George Monbiot wanted to know “what happens to people when they become government science advisers? Are their children taken hostage? Is a dossier of compromising photographs kept, ready to send to The Sun if they step out of line? I ask because, in too many cases, they soon begin to sound less like scientists than industrial lobbyists”.

Monbiot said that the worst example he had seen of this in the past ten years was the “concatenation of gibberish” published in the Financial Times business newspaper by Mark Walport, who had just become the British government's new chief scientist. In his article, Walport denounced the proposal for a temporary EU ban on the neonicotinoid pesticides blamed for killing bees and other pollinating insects. He claimed that “the consequences of such a moratorium could be harmful to the continent's crop production, farming communities and consumers.”

Monbiot noted that this also happened to be exactly the position of the UK government, to which “he is supposed to provide disinterested advice.” In fact, Walport's article was clearly timed to influence an EU vote, in 2013, by European member states to suspend the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides. The UK government was “fighting valiantly on behalf of the manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer”, who have a large presence in the UK.

The Independent also reported on the “extraordinary steps” taken by the British Government to head off the proposed EU ban. In addition to Walport’s article, this included the circulation of a note from the UK Environment Secretary to all 27 EU member states saying there was not enough scientific evidence for a ban, although 30 scientific papers linked the pesticides with harm to bees had been published in the previous three years. Despite this UK lobbying, the EU voted for the ban in 2013. However, determined to continue sales of neonicotinoid pesticides in the UK the UK government subsequently suspended the EU ban in 2015.

Monbiot was scathing of Walport’s position. As the UK’s chief scientist, his official duties should include ensuring that “the scientific method, risk and uncertainty are understood by the public” (discussed in The Science of Science Advice - The Art of Science Advice (2)). But less than a month after he had become CSA, Walport had already “misinformed the public” about the scientific method, risk and uncertainty. “He has made groundless, unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims. He has indulged in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in support of the government's position. In defending science against political pressure, he is, in other words, as much use as a suit of paper armour.” But Monbiot predicted that, as a result, Walport would no doubt “end his career with a peerage.” With his appointment as head of UKRI, he is no doubt well on his way.

However, professor of research policy, James Wilsdon, defended Walport against Monbiot’s attack, saying it was unfair to write off Walport as “a corporate stooge in search of a peerage”. Nevertheless he did concede that Walport appeared to have strayed into political advocacy away from his role as an unbiased science advisor: “Where Walport actually erred was in advocating how values trade-offs should be made in the case of bees and pesticides”. For example, Walport wrote that “The European Commission has proposed a temporary ban on the use of certain agricultural pesticides. It should drop this idea.” “Here Walport has stepped well beyond evaluating scientific evidence, or clarifying options, and slipped into the role of a political advocate, who seeks to secure one particular outcome. Not coincidentally, it is the outcome preferred by the government for which he works”, Wilson wrote.

In March 2017, the UK government budget gave Mark Walport and UKRI more funds to pursue the avowed aim of turning science into business opportunities. In addition to Innovate UK, the technology transfer fund, he will also administer part of a new £2 billion Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for research partnerships with business, that has been “designed to develop the UK economy”.

Walport will also control part of the £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund and a separate fund for multidisciplinary grants taken from the council budgets and expected to provide £100 million to £150 million annually.

This extra R&D money for UKRI has been promised to compensate for the “black hole in funding” that will arise if the UK’s Brexit negotiations result in it being excluded from future European programmes, including the European Research Council (ERC) and the successor framework to Horizon 2020. However, although the UK research community is virtually unanimous in wanting to secure continued participation in European science, it has been suggested that Walport could be in favour of leaving these programmes and going it alone. Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, hoped that this was not true “because there is far more at stake here than access to funding.”

In the next part, we’ll look at just how bad the loss of EU funding, research collaborations, overseas students, and even ‘goodwill’ could become for UK science.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 12.05.2017