Setting priorities for publicly funded research - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Supplementary memorandum by Professor Andrew Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex


  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 for—and possible natures of—possible 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 research?

  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 attention—as 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 innovation.13

  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 contending—equally scientifically founded—positions. 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. Yet—no matter how strongly asserted the position—we 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 paralleled—and potentially exacerbated—by 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 research—often 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 reduction—each requiring crucial choices in the balancing of contending scientific and technological trajectories—the 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", "universalism", "disinterestedness" 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 rigorous—but more robust and plural—quality 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". Instead—if appropriately articulated in more open policy procedures—critical 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 more generally.

(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 invidious—in the absence of an exhaustive authoritative review of precisely the kind argued above not to be available—to 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 responsibility—especially at the highest levels—to 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 value—and 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 sector—and address on this basis the rationales for the particular patterns of UK public investment in specific alternative trajectories on a sector by sector basis.

  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):

2  Details at (1/10):

3  Details at (1/10):

4  Details at (1/10):

5  Details at (1/10):

6  Details at (1/10):

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):

  Cf: Defence Analytical Services and Advice, Ministry of Defence, London, 2009. At (1/10):

10  Cf: International Energy Agency Energy R&D Database, Paris, 2009. At (1/10):

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):

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):

16  Expert Group on Science and Technology, Increasing Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe, Brussels: EU, 2004.

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):

18  T Blair, Statement to UK Parliament, 10 November 2003. At (7/9):

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):

21  For instance on food [at (1/10):] and science and engineering [ at (1/10):].

22  Such as the "Forward Look: Government funded science, engineering & technology", DIUS, 2003. At (1/10):

23  For instance, the DEFRA Evidence Investment Strategy (2005-08) DEFRA, London, 2006. At (1/10):

24  For instance on "big science" [at (1/10):] and agricultural research [at (1/10):].

25  For instance, Parliamentary office of Science and Technology, Science in Policy, POST, London, 2003. At: (1/10):

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, 2000.

previous page contents

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2010