Supplementary memorandum by Professor
Andrew Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University
1. I am Research Director for SPRU ("Science
Policy Research Unit") at the University of Sussex1 and
co-direct the joint Institute of Development Studies/SPRU ESRC-funded
"STEPS" Centre.2 Among other bodies, I serve on the
DEFRA Science Advisory Council3 and BIS Sciencewise Steering
Group4 and, in the past, on the European Expert Group on
Science and Governance.5 The present evidence was prepared in
response to the specific questions circulated by the Committee
Secretariat on Wednesday 6 January 2010 to witnesses
for the oral evidence session on 12 January. It was not submitted
in advance because it was regrettably not possible to meet the
deadline of 7 January.
2. This evidence is a more specific complement
to that by my SPRU colleague Dr Paul Nightingale. It focuses on
the Committee's first, most detailed and (I understand) highest
priority query for the present session, concerning the rationales
forand possible natures ofpossible improvements
to the UK system for prioritising publicly funded research. As
such, it reflects my own experience, both in researching and providing
scientific advice in policy and policy advice on science in the
UK and EU research systems.6 It is also grounded in a large
body of interdisciplinary research arising in a dynamic international
field concerning science, technology and society. However, since
SPRU as an independent academic research institute does not take
collective positions on specific policy issues, the details of
this evidence should be regarded as the individual responsibility
of the author.
What improvements could be made to the current
system of priority setting for publicly funded research? In particular:
(a) What are the strengths and weaknesses
of the UK's system for setting priorities for publicly funded
3. In some ways, I believe that the UK
presents a relatively rigorous, open and dynamic arena for setting
priorities in publicly funded research. Positive features
include an overarching climate of vigorous political attentionas
exemplified (inter alia) by the present Committee and a
number of other scrutinising parliamentary fora. There is a rich
diversity of relevant statutory and non-statutory advisory bodies
and mission-oriented agencies (see below). Policy deliberation
and documentation is generally quite detailed and of a high quality.
The UK enjoys a healthy news media and a plural civil society,
engaging in active and (sometimes!) sophisticated ways on issues
of science and innovation. Not least, the UK scientific community
is among the more sensitive and attentive to its own responsibilities
in public engagement.7
4. In my view, the principal weaknesses
of the UK's systems for setting priorities for publicly funded
research are twofold and inter-related. Despite the contextual
diversity and variability over time, these are shared in common
with many other comparable countries. Each involves different
aspects of a vulnerability to unintended, undue concentration
and "lock-in" in research.
5. Starting with the first aspect, there
is in a number of areas a risk of concealed concentration
in the power and influence exercised over prioritisation of different
areas of scientific enquiry and support for alternative orientations
for technological innovation. Principles of scientific excellence
rightly and necessarily privilege specialist expertise and the
procedures by which this is nurtured and accredited. Yet not all
issues in the prioritising and orienting of research are readily
or rightly reduced solely to matters for the directly-involved
specialisms themselves. Indeed, there is a sense in which restricted
disciplinary communities, elite expert networks and dominant scientific
institutions may themselves represent strong vested interests.
In this respect, exclusive or overly simplistic principles of
"autonomy" and "excellence" may lead to significant
deficits in transparency and accountability.
6. Second, there is in a number of areas
an associated but distinct risk that prioritisation of scientific
enquiry and orientation of technological innovation are becoming
relatively locked-in to a restricted subset of possible
pathways. This may foreclose a wider variety of (prima facie)
similarly scientifically-reasonable, technically-feasible and
economically-viable alternative directions. Much high quality
analysis in many disciplines has documented the many ways in which
directions for progress in science and technology are prone to
path-dependency and "entrapment".8 Insofar as is visible
(see below), illustrative examples may include: the fact that
roughly one third of all UK public expenditure on research is
assigned to military (rather than civilian) applications9 (probably
rather higher in fields like robotics, nanoscience and aerospace).
In the OECD, renewable energy research receives only one quarter
of the allocation to nuclear fission and fusion, with fusion
research alone receiving more investment in the UK than any renewable
energy technology.10 In the health sector, there is an evident
(but poorly documented) emphasis on intellectual property-intensive
medical products, rather than preventive or organisational approaches
to public health.11 In agriculture, the focus tends to be stronger
on transgenics than other applications of advanced biological
science.12 In all these and other areas, there are at least grounds
for considering the case for more balanced and diverse portfolios
of trajectories in publicly funded scientific research and technological
7. The essential point in identifying these
possible weaknesses is not to assert one particular view of undue
concentration or lock-in, in these areas of UK publicly funded
research. This would require more substantive documentation than
is possible or appropriate in this evidence (see below). Any such
position would in any case necessarily be value-laden in a fashion
that might readily be contested from another reasonable but contrasting
evaluative perspective. In making this diagnosis, I am instead
addressing a more general issue (one that can be appreciated independently
of positions concerning the merits or drawbacks of particular
research trajectories). Here, the crucial question is: "do
existing UK systems for setting research priorities provide a
sufficiently robust, transparent or accountable basis to ensure
avoidance of these dangers of concentration and 'lock-in'?"
8. It is also important to clarify that
this argument should not be taken to imply that prospects or applications
for alternative research or technology trajectories is necessarily
always clear. This is often far from the case. Nor is this a bad
thing. An openness to creative "response mode" enquiry
is a crucial feature of a healthy research system, which needs
to be continually nurtured. However, this does not negate the
importance of more open and explicit deliberation over the structuring
of the institutional and (inter)disciplinary contexts within which
such creativity is generated. In reality, the scientific grounding,
technical feasibility and (especially) economic viability of contending
avenues for public investment in research is typically highly
uncertain. Indeed, the dynamics of concentration and lock-in
themselves (operating in global knowledge and innovation systems)
amplifies the uncertainties. Prospects that potentially feasible
or viable innovation paths will actually prove realisable will
depend not only on intrinsic merits in each case, but also (in
part) on the extents to which each path is reinforced in parallel
international commitments. As such, appropriate balancing of UK
research priorities also depends on expectations over complementary
commercial and non-UK public investments. This wider complexity,
uncertainty and dynamism in the picture concerning relative merits
of alternative research trajectories serves to underscore the
central point here: that the UK system may presently be vulnerable
to undue and opaque forms of concentration and lock-in.
9. Some further background and substantiation
for this concern, can be conveyed by considering a number of general
features of the ways in which contending scientific and technological
priorities tend to be discussed in high-level policy making.
Here, a frequently-heard phrase on all sides of debate from Prime
Ministers downward, is that policymaking is (or should be) generically
"pro innovation".14 This kind of language treats
technological progress as essentially homogeneous and one-directional.
The underlying idea is that of a one-track "race to the future".15
Those particular orientations for innovation that are favoured
in decision making are thereby presented not only as self-evidently
good, nor just as implicitly optimal, but as effectively synonymous
with innovation itself. In similar vein, authoritative bodies
in the UK research system tend to interpret critical public perspectives
on particular technological trajectories (like synthetic
chemicals, transgenic crops or nuclear power) as reflecting indiscriminately
general "anti-science"16 or "anti-technology"
positions.17 Senior figures defend commitments to particular innovation
priorities in these areas as if they were uniquely expressive
of "science based" decision making.18
10. In all these ways, much conventional
language in the politics of science and technology in the UK is
routinely obscuring the reality of choices between contendingequally
scientifically foundedpositions. Alternatives to many
contested trajectories typically involve similarly advanced applications
of science and technology. To take the examples cited earlier,
this is true for instance, of: civilian (as distinct from military)
applications in robotics, nanotechnology and aerospace; a wide
variety of renewable power and energy efficiency technologies
(as distinct from nuclear fission and fusion); holistic, preventive
and organisational (rather than IP-intensive) approaches to public
health; and genetic marker-assist breeding, cisgenics, apomixis,
ecological strategies and biological control (as distinct from
transgenics) in agriculture. By representing matters of prioritisation
and orientation in these and other areas simply as matters of
"pro-innovation" or "science based" decision
making, much high level debate on science and technology policy
is regrettably inadequate. Subtle evaluative issues around prioritisation
of different innovation paths are lost in the false objectivity
and misleading simplicity of the "pro"/"anti"
dichotomy. This presents a serious inhibition to robust, transparent
or accountable policy making concerning alternative directions
for science and technology.
11. This routine lack of discrimination
between alternative priorities and orientations in much conventional
high level discussion of science and technology stands in stark
contrast to many other areas of policy making. In fields like
criminal justice, foreign relations and education policy, political
debate often engages with highly complex matters of technical
expertise. Yetno matter how strongly asserted the positionwe
rarely find such a general climate of simplification and objectification
as encountered in science and technology policy. It is almost
as if defenders of incumbent positions in these other areas of
policy were to refer to themselves as being simply "pro policy",
and their critics as being indiscriminately "anti policy"
in general. The inherent absurdity of this image underscores the
degree of idiosyncrasy exhibited by much present discussion over
alternative priorities in science and technology.
12. More substantively, this weakness in
general political debate is paralleledand potentially exacerbatedby
a significant characteristic of (in many ways otherwise exemplary)
official documentation in UK science and technology policy. This
is that, amidst the authoritative analysis, comprehensive scope
and formidable detail, there is in this governmental literature
virtually no routine systematic attention to the relative degrees
of support provided for specific alternative scientific and technological
trajectories in particular areas. It was partly for this reason,
that the former Chief Scientists' Energy Research Review Group
criticised (even in this arguably best-documented of areas), the
lack of transparency concerning comparisons between technology-specific
spends.19 This is also why the above-cited concrete examples of
other potential areas of concentration and lock-in in UK research
portfolios may presently be sketched only in relatively incomplete
or qualified ways.
13. It is important to be clear that this
argument should in no way be taken to detract from the value or
quality of that analysis and documentation which is available.
The Government Office of Science produces valuable detailed,
authoritative and regularly-updated statistics in wide a range
of science, engineering and technology indicators20 as well
as more focused in-depth surveys.21 The Department of Business
Innovation and Skills publishes much comprehensive information
concerning the scientometric, demographic, departmental and sectoral
structures of UK researchoften in revealing cross-national
context.22 Individual departments and agencies intermittently
address their own portfolios in similar ways, or focus on selective
areas for application of particular trajectories in science and
innovation.23 The Research Councils publish similar comprehensive
figures concerning contrasting disciplinary spends. The National
Audit Office conducts periodic reviews in many of these areas,24
as do independent and advisory bodies such as the Royal Society
and Council on Science and Technology. The Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology provides Parliament with
hundreds of reports concerning a wide range of topical issues
in science and technology.25 Yet the point remains that it is
very difficult to extract from this literature on any consistent
basis, a reliable answer to the ostensibly simple questions: "What
is the balance of total UK government spending on alternative
trajectories for science and technology in selected specific sectors?
What is the rationale for this?"
14. It is this kind of deceptively straightforward
question that underlies concerns over possible concentration and
lock-in in UK government spending in the prioritising of contending
orientations for research and innovation. Concealed by the generic
"pro"/"anti" rhetorics on science and technology,
it is these issues that are central to debates over intrinsically
political choices, like those exemplified earlier. With increasing
attention to challenges of global climate change, food and energy
security and poverty reductioneach requiring crucial choices
in the balancing of contending scientific and technological trajectoriesthe
stakes are indeed high. In the absence of routine, detailed, systematic,
comprehensive and transparent attention to this basic dimension
of science and technology policy, it is difficult to debate
with any confidence whether or not the UK system of priority setting
for publicly funded research is subject to unjustified influence
by vested interests. Still less is it possible seriously, rigorously
and openly to debate whether the resulting portfolios strike an
appropriate balance between alternative possible pathways, or
whether they are locked-in to particular single trajectories to
the exclusion of others.
(b) What principles or criteria should apply
in the process of setting priorities for publicly funded research?
What changes, if any, do you suggest?
15. To recognise the weaknesses outlined
above need not be taken to imply any compromise on the Haldane
Principle, concerning the benefits of the independence of
science from special interests.26 Concerns over possible concentration
and lock-in need not raise any fundamental challenges to core
principles of quality in science, such as those concerning experimental
rigour, open publication of evidence or the conduct of peer review.
Issues of accountability and diversity arise more at the level
of strategic prioritisation and resource allocation between
fields, applications and orientations for enquiry, than in the
judging of rigour or excellence within disciplines. In
these terms, a robust interpretation of the Haldane Principle
may be taken as an injunction that the prioritisation and orientation
of research be as independent from vested interests operating
within, as those intruding from outside, science.
The Haldane Principle is not well respected simply by assuming
that science displays no networks of privilege, disciplinary hierarchies
or dominant institutions that might interfere with idealised notions
of excellence. Nor is it reasonable simply to assume that
these intrinsic and unavoidable features of the internal social
relations of science are themselves somehow immune from dynamics
of power, privilege and prejudice in wider politics and the economy.
16. In order to assist application of the
spirit of the Haldane Principle in this broader and more robust
fashion, I believe that a potentially important guide may be provided
by some of the foundational principles of science itself. At least
as normative aspirations (if not as routinely or universally achieved
practice), these are perhaps most usefully articulated in the
much-discussed "Mertonian Norms" proposed by
the sociologist of science Robert Merton27 and subsequently
developed in various ways.28 They are conventionally summarised
by the acronym "CUDOS"standing for "communalism",
and "organised scepticism". In considering the
implications of these norms for discussions over the Haldane Principle,
it is necessary to extend the scope of application from relatively
narrow issues in the practice of science itself, to wider procedures
in the shaping of priorities and orientations for publicly funded
research. In these terms, relevant principles for the mitigation
of possible concentration and lock-in might be described as follows.
17. The principle characterised by Merton
as "communalism", suggests an injunction to treat
issues of broad prioritisation among alternative orientations
for scientific enquiry and technological innovation as a responsibility
not just for the most directly-implicated specialist interests,
but also for the wider social communities who stand to be affected.
Among other things this enjoins a criterion of transparency
in the full and clear provision of authoritative information to
facilitate improved and extended policy debate over the appropriate
values and interests to prioritise in the public funding of research.
18. An extension of Merton's principle of
"universalism" might be viewed as a requirement
that social and political deliberation over priorities and orientations
in science and technology should not only include, but also address,
a full range of interests, irrespective of affiliation, race,
class, nationality, culture, or gender. This implies, inter
alia, a corresponding criterion of accountability in
decision making over choices and trade-offs in provision of resources
to alternative trajectories and their relationship to divergent
social imperatives and concerns. In order to guard against lock-in
to particular trajectories, a principle of universalism also suggests
a criterion of diversity in research portfolios: ensuring
accommodation of a wider array of contending interests and values
in the prioritising of divergent orientations.
19. Merton's principle of "disinterestedness"
can also be extended beyond issues of independence from external
influences on scientific enquiry itself, to the prioritisation
and orientation of research more broadly. This should also be
similarly independent, but in a sense that explicitly guards against
undue concentration of power and influence favouring special interests
operating within the social organisation of science (such
as restricted disciplinary communities, elite expert networks
and dominant scientific institutions). This need not imply any
compromise on attention to scientific excellence; requiring
instead the application of equally rigorousbut more robust
and pluralquality criteria (see below).
20. Finally, there is the principle of "organised
scepticism", which in this broader context reminds us
of the value of encouraging active critical scrutiny of scientific
priorities and incumbent interests in wider social and political
debate over research priorities. In these terms, public concerns
over particular trajectories for research should not be treated
as a generic "anti-science" pathology to be remedied
by "public education". Insteadif appropriately
articulated in more open policy procedurescritical public
debate over priorities for science and technology might be
welcomed as an intrinsic matter of quality control in research
policy (just as it is in science itself). This in turn might help
to ensure a healthier degree of rigour and rationality in the
determination of directions for progress in knowledge and innovation
(c) To what extent are the organisations and
individuals currently involved in setting priorities for publicly
funded research fulfilling their roles? What changes, if any do
you suggest to their roles and/or remits?
21. Such is the scale, complexity, diversity
and sophistication of existing UK systems for setting priorities
for publicly funded research, that it would be invidiousin
the absence of an exhaustive authoritative review of precisely
the kind argued above not to be availableto assert a position
on the extent to which different organisations or individuals
are fulfilling their roles. However, there do follow from this
evidence some fairly direct implications for the ways in which
senior political figures engage with issues in the prioritisation
and orientation of contending directions for science and technology.
Most importantly, there is a clear responsibilityespecially
at the highest levelsto reject simplistic and misleading
rhetorics around supposedly indiscriminately "pro-innovation"
policies; the branding of concerns over specific innovations as
generically "anti-technology"; or claims to achieve
decision-making that is uniquely and exclusively "science
based". Politicians, civil servants and scientists alike
should be careful not to conceal in these ways the intrinsically
valueand interest-laden dimensions in prioritising and
orienting progress in science and technology.
22. Slightly more specifically (and recognising
the reality of specialised remits and resource constraints), a
few observations might be ventured concerning the terms of reference
of some of the bodies referred to earlier. For instance, alongside
the exemplary data already provided, the Government Office
of Science might also examine the possibilities of publishing
on a more regular basis, detailed figures (aggregated across all
public research spending) concerning the overall balance of investment
in alternative scientific and technological approaches
in selected key sectors of the economy, such as those mentioned
in this evidence (involving, for instance, specific contending
research trajectories in energy, food, transport, security and
public health). The Department of Business Innovation and Skills
might periodically then relate this to complementary spending
in other countries and the private sectorand address on
this basis the rationales for the particular patterns of UK public
investment in specific alternative trajectories on a sector by
23. This might then help prompt individual
departments and agencies to address their own portfolios
in similar ways, focussing in more explicit detail on the implications
of divergent values and interests for the prioritising of alternative
trajectories in their own areas. There exists in the current burgeoning
field of "public engagement in science", a variety of
potentially useful and effective approaches to providing this
kind of broader-based and more robust evidence base for the orientation
of research priorities. The present Select Committee has itself
played a formative role in establishing these practices more widely
in the UK science system. Yet much of this activity currently
remains ambiguous in its rationale and motivations: as to whether
it about fostering public trust and acceptance for existing priorities
in science and technology, or eliciting guidance as to the appropriate
balance to strike. Although addressing less mission-oriented areas
of science, the Research Councils might also play a lead
role by examining their own portfolios more systematically in
relation to this wider evidence base and highlight any issues
that arise. In particular, as already widely recognised, Research
Councils also offer crucial inputs to development of more robust
and plural criteria of scientific excellence, of the kind that
might assist in extending the Mertonian principles referred to
above. Other bodies might also play key roles in periodic interrogation
and challenge in these wider dimensions in research governance,
including the National Audit Office and the Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology.
24. I believe that it is only through broad-based
(but reasonable and incremental) reforms of these kinds, that
those with an interest in UK systems for setting priorities for
publicly funded research might be able to obtain full or reliable
answers to the simple questions: "What is the balance
of total UK government spending on alternative trajectories for
science and technology in selected specific sectors? What is the
rationale for this?"
12 January 2010
1 Details at (1/10): http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/.
2 Details at (1/10): http://www.steps-centre.org/.
3 Details at (1/10): http://www.defra.gov.uk/evidence/science/how/sac/index.htm.
4 Details at (1/10): http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/steering-group/.
5 Details at (1/10): http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/index.cfm?fuseaction=public.topic&id=119.
6 Details at (1/10): http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/profile7513.html.
7 See discussion in: K Sykes, R Stilgoe, The
Road Ahead: Public Engagement in Science and Technology, UK Department
of Innovation, Universities and Skills, London, 2009. At (1/10):
8 See more detailed documentation in: A Stirling,
Direction, Distribution and Diversity! Pluralising Progress
in Innovation, Sustainability and Development, STEPS Working
Paper 32, Brighton: STEPS Centre, 2009. At (1/10): http://anewmanifesto.org/wp-content/uploads/stirling-paper-32.pdf.
Cf: Defence Analytical Services and Advice,
Ministry of Defence, London, 2009. At (1/10): http://www.dasa.mod.uk/modintranet/publications/pdfs/bulletin/bulletin9.pdf.
10 Cf: International Energy Agency Energy
R&D Database, Paris, 2009. At (1/10): http://www.iea.org/RDD/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=1
11 Cf: Boldrin, M and Levine, D. (2008) Against
Intellectual Monopoly, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
12 Millstone, E, et al (2009) Reforming the
Global Food and Agriculture System, STEPS Working Paper 26,
Brighton: STEPS Centre. At (1/10): http://anewmanifesto.org/wp-content/uploads/millstone-et-al-paper-26.pdf.
13 A Stirling, A General Framework for Analysing
Diversity in Science, Technology and Society, Journal of the
Royal Society Interface, 4 (15), 707-719, August 2007
14 For instance, G Brown, Speech, Speech of
26 January 2004, HM Treasury, London, 2004. At (7/9):
15 Cf: A Broers, The Triumph of Technology,
Lecture 1 of the 2005 Reith Lectures, BBC, London, 2003.
At (1/10): http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2005/lecture1.shtml.
16 Expert Group on Science and Technology, Increasing
Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe, Brussels:
17 UK Council on Science and Technology Technology
Matters: Report on the Exploitation of Science and Technology
by UK Business, London, 2000. At (7/9): http://www.cst.gov.uk/cst/reports/files/technology-matters/technology-matters-report.doc.
18 T Blair, Statement to UK Parliament,
10 November 2003. At (7/9): http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo031110/text/31110w04.htm.
19 "We believe that the difficulties this
group has experienced in data gathering, which echo those experienced
by the Energy Group while putting together its own strategy document,
demonstrate the lack of transparency of information in this area.
The lack of information on industrial research may reflect the
fact that energy utilities are now found far more often in the
private sector than used to be the case. The difficulties of obtaining
information on overseas activities may be as much a problem of
comparability of data, as of accessibility. But some of the difficulties
arise from the rather diffuse nature of the UK research effort,
divided as it is between DTI, the Research Councils, the Carbon
Trust, and, to a lesser degree, the involvement of other government
departments, although we noted that these parties are working
to co-ordinate their activities." (para.72, Chief Scientific
Adviser's Energy Research Review Group, OST, 2002. At (1/10):
20 For instance, regularly-updated statistics
on Science, Engineering and Technology Indicators, 2009.
At (1/10): http://www.dius.gov.uk/science/science_funding/set_stats.
21 For instance on food [at (1/10): http://www.dius.gov.uk/~/media/publications/GO-Science/UK-Cross-Government-Food-Research-Strategy]
and science and engineering [ at (1/10): http://www.dius.gov.uk/~/media/publications/GO-Science/GO-ScienceSEG].
22 Such as the "Forward Look: Government
funded science, engineering & technology", DIUS,
2003. At (1/10): http://www.dius.gov.uk/~/media/publications/F/file34199.
23 For instance, the DEFRA Evidence Investment
Strategy (2005-08) DEFRA, London, 2006. At (1/10): http://www.defra.gov.uk/evidence/science/how/strategy.htm.
24 For instance on "big science" [at
(1/10): http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/0607/big_science_public_investment.aspx] and agricultural research [at (1/10): http://www.nao.org.uk//idoc.ashx?docId=179BA795-6D19-4C4E-9CCA-B7BD00B66103&version=-1].
25 For instance, Parliamentary office of Science
and Technology, Science in Policy, POST, London, 2003.
At: (1/10): http://www.parliament.uk/post/pn196.pdf.
26 Haldane Report (1918). Report of the Machinery
of Government Committee under the chairmanship of Viscount Haldane
of Cloan. London: HMSO.
27 Eg: R Merton, The Sociology of Science,
University of Chicago Press, 1973.
28 Eg: J Ziman, Real Science: what it is,
and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,