Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


Mission driven research

182. A fourth criticism we have heard of the Haldane Principle is that it has perpetuated "the situation whereby the application of research funding fails to match the challenges facing the economy, industry and society at large".[166] To put it another way, it has bolstered curiosity-driven research, but done little to support mission-driven research and development. We have already discussed at length strategic focus of research funds and this is a connected theme. It is worth pursuing in this context, because we received several calls for a dual approach to research in the UK. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, for example, is a strong supporter of the dual approach:

    It is the solution that emerged post-war in the United States and that has been so successful. It has created a diverse and adaptable basic research enterprise, coupled with sustained, long term investment in 'platform' technologies that ultimately provide perennial spin-off that can be exploited by companies that pull strongly on the research base for technological solutions, and has been further stimulated in recent decades by the power of public procurement through the SBIR scheme. For example, a mission-driven component of national strategy might have been more effective, ten years ago, in ensuring that the UK exploited its early lead in stem-cell technologies in the period when stem-cell research in the USA was restricted. We need to see initiatives actively designed to create new global winners in the UK economy. This should involve initiatives from the NHS, MOD, Local and National Government, HMRC etc. It should also involve bodies from the wider public sector such as OfCom. All public agencies should expect congratulation if they help one or more British companies to build commercial success.[167]

183. The Royal Academy of Engineering put it in a different light:

    The Haldane Principle […] has different meanings when applied to the direction of science and engineering research. For pure science, it seems reasonable that researchers themselves should be best placed to understand what direction their research should proceed in and they should not be constrained in their academic endeavours. For engineering, on the other hand, it seems reasonable that Government should express requirements in terms of general challenges that can be met through directed research and expect researchers to be able to contribute to the development of solutions to wider policy deployment problems.[168]

184. However one thinks of the issue, it is well-known that the UK's immense strength in basic science is not matched by its follow-through into economic benefits. According to the CBI: "the UK still lacks the mission-driven ethos that is prevalent in competitor countries such as the US, where DARPA, NASA and other agencies lead the way in engaging business and universities to find solutions to real world problems".[169] While the creation of the Technology Strategy Board has resulted in a marked increase in support and focus on user-defined and challenge-led research, some have argued that it has not gone far enough. The Royal Academy of Engineering suggests that "the TSB's budget should arguably be of the same order of magnitude as the Research Councils' as a whole".[170]

185. We have already given our support for a more strategic approach to setting priorities in science funding, specifically at the applied end of the spectrum. Considering this issue in the context of the Haldane Principle highlights the need for a new approach to science funding that incorporates the good elements of Haldane in relation to basic science, but does not hinder a more mission-driven approach to get the full benefits of applied science and engineering.

A new research funding principle

186. Although there is support in the science community for the Haldane Principle insofar as it provides for the independence of researchers,[171] we also received a number of submissions that called for a new or updated Haldane Principle.[172] Professor Fisk told us that:

    It is my impression that the Haldane Principle was dead in the early 1980s. It is a 1918 principle. Apart from Magna Carta I cannot think of any other principle that ancient that clutters around in public life and I think actually its term is positively unhelpful for the end point you want to have. […] In most other countries there is an analogous principle but it is one about the freedom of the academic community in public life to contribute to the quality of public life. […] My own feeling is that we ought to be much clearer on what we think is the value of independent research in a world which is always changing.[173]

187. The Royal Society agreed: "Rather than a debate about what Haldane meant in 1918, we need a better understanding about the way in which the Government now interprets the Haldane Principle".[174] And the UK Deans of Science made an intriguing suggestion, the later part of which we discuss in the next chapter: "We believe that the time has come for a serious discussion about the Haldane Principle, something that could be one of the first inquiries carried out by a re-formed Science and Technology Select Committee".[175]

188. The time has come for a new framework to replace the Haldane Principle (however it is understood) that adds transparency and rigour to the relationship between Government and the research community. It is important that the diversity of relationships between Government and the various bodies it funds to do research are included under a broad set of principles. We recommend that the Council for Science and Technology be commissioned to carry out this work.

166   Ev 205 (BAE Systems) Back

167   Ev 254 Back

168   Ev 200 Back

169   Ev 103 Back

170   Ev 277 Back

171   Ev 75 (Unite the Union); Ev 83 (Natural History Museum); Ev 94 (AstraZeneca); Ev 111 (Institute of Physics); Ev 137 (Imperial College London); Ev 149 (John Innes Centre & Institute for Food Research); Ev 258 (Royal Society of Chemistry) Back

172   Ev 106 (BRE Global); Ev 181 (Regional Studies Association) Back

173   Q 62 Back

174   Ev 151 Back

175   Ev 118 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 23 July 2009