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

Memorandum 81

Submission from the Open University (OU)


  Thank you for the opportunity to comment on issues raised by the Select Committee, referring to Lord Drayson's question: "Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?"

What form a debate or consultation about the question should take and who should lead it

Such a debate should be led by a body which has no vested interests in the issue and which has democratic accountability, such as a Parliamentary Committee, rather than by government-appointed advisors.

To be truly a debate rather than a facade or fait accompli, an inquiry should investigate key policy assumptions underlying Lord Drayson's semi-rhetorical question. In particular:

    —  Clear? His question assumes that a competitive advantage is (or can be) clear. If it is really so clear, then do UK companies already pursue this opportunity by investing significantly in the specific technique or sector? What doubts are indicated about an advantage? Given the long history of failed expectations for several technologies, what counts as evidence of future commercial prospects?

    —  UK advantage? His question assumes that the unit of competitive advantage is an entire nation, as if we were all common shareholders and potential beneficiaries of any return on investment. This assumption might be plausible if all investment remains within a public-sector body, but is this arrangement being proposed? How is the UK being conflated with specific private interests?

    —  Science/innovation: His question also assumes that more science can make a significant difference to innovation and its economic competitiveness. As Lord Drayson put it in his speech, we should "boost the economic impact of our science base". This presumes many close linkages between more science, innovation and commerce. Yet these links have a long history of disappointment and failure, especially when starting from science. Meanwhile resources have been diverted from alternative innovation pathways, which need not depend on new scientific knowledge.

Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary

  Such a policy may be desirable if key policy assumptions (as above) are properly investigated, by drawing on diverse views from experts and stakeholders, as a basis for scrutinising specific proposals for investment priorities in scientific research. Such proposals generally combine arguments about competitive advantage and common societal benefits, thus assuming (or implying) that these are complementary. Many such proposals also assume that societal problems result from genetic deficiencies, as the basis for a techno-fix. All these policy assumptions should be investigated, putting a strong burden of evidence upon the advocates.

For example, speaking at the Royal Society on 4th February, Lord Drayson's speech linked general societal problems—ageing populations, ill health, obesity, etc—to NHS resources, to genomics, to "the genetic basis of disease" as a general assumption about its cause. From this tendentious conflation, he has advocated private-sector access to the NHS database, in the name of the public good. Whose problem is being addressed by this solution?

  As another recent example, the BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell has requested an extra £100 million for crop research to increase yields in ways not requiring oil-based inputs, in order to avoid world hunger and food riots. "Only science can bring the levels of increased production we need to ensure safe, nutritious and affordable food for everyone", he said.



  Such claims make several policy assumptions:

    —  that the growing appropriation of land for global markets (mainly in animal feed and biofuels) must be accepted as a natural feature of trade liberalisation;

    —  that world hunger is due mainly to inadequate agricultural production rather than other causes, eg small-scale producers losing income and access to land for local food need;

    —  that yields are limited by currently available crops due to deficiencies which could be corrected through laboratory research; and

    —  that novel crops could significantly increase yields without increasing inputs such as water, fertiliser and chemicals.

  Such assumptions have been questioned by numerous studies. Alternative perspectives have been presented in the prestigious 2008 report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). All the above assumptions warrant close scrutiny by drawing on diverse views from experts and stakeholders, especially NGOs dealing with development issues.

What the potential implications of such a policy are for UK science and engineering, higher education, industry and the economy as a whole

  If public-sector investment decisions simply accept the above assumptions, then the decision-making procedures would lack democratic legitimacy. If public investment is directed at techno-fixes (such as the ones above), then resources may be diverted from understanding the wider causes of societal problems and from addressing them, while benefiting only private interests (at most).

If an inquiry systematically questions the above assumptions, then the outcome could be quite different priorities than those being currently advocated. Private interests could complement the public good rather than subordinate it.

Were such a policy pursued, which research sectors are most likely to benefit and which are most likely to lose

  Benefit or loss may result, but not necessarily for an entire sector of research or industry. A targeted investment may favour specific techniques within a research sector, thus pushing the sector along one pathway, while losing or weakening other potential pathways. At issue is what counts as scientific and societal progress; such a policy judgement should be democratically accountable.

Note on my relevant expertise

For two decades I have carried out research on the regulation and innovation of agricultural biotechnology, in projects funded by the European Commission and by the ESRC. Now I am carrying out an EC-funded study of the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy in the agricultural sector (see www.crepeweb.net). In the next few months we will have findings relevant to your inquiry. I would be pleased to send you or to present more information along those lines.

May 2009

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