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blog Apr 10, 2017

Thoughts on Science Policy

Author: Jackie Hunter

On the surface science policy may appear to be rather a dry subject, but it is fundamental to academic research and its positive knock-on effect for innovation in industry. 

Science policy is essentially concerned with the allocation of critical resources for science with the overall aim of conducting research that best serves the public interest.  Most people just think science policy is to do with government science - this is true in part, but it also includes:

Whether you are a scientist, an engineer or a medical researcher, science policy matters.  Evidence and expertise are fundamental outputs of science policy.

In an era where evidence and experts are constantly being called into question – scientific experts being likened to “soothsayers and astrologers” by at least one British politician and much maligned a certain US president – we have to ensure that science policy continues to set high standards.

The importance of blue sky funding

One of the first questions that government and funders consider is the balance between basic science and applied science.  How much funding should go to blue sky research and how much to research with a near term impact?  The problem is that we are not smart enough to know what blue sky research will lead to. 

Who would have known that research into a bacteria that caused tumours in rose bushes would lead to the development of transgenic technology.  The wide ranging applications of antibody technology were not envisioned when the original research was being performed.  The research in liquid crystals that underpinned the development of flat screen TVs was actually turned down by the then Science Engineering Council and ended up being funded by the Ministry of Defence. There are many more examples that I could cite in this vein from the discovery of polyethylene to magnetic resonance imaging,

The need for long term thinking and curiosity 

So there is a danger in deciding in advance what research is going to have the most downstream impact.  We need to make sure that there is space and funding for curiosity driven research.  There has been a reorganisation of the research councils in the UK - they now sit in a new organisation called UKRI alongside the research funding for Universities from HEFEC and Innovate UK.  One of the things I was most concerned about in this new organisation was that it might increase the ability of Government to tell the research councils what research to fund.  This would be disastrous – partly because Government departments have a history of not always funding the best research, but mainly because the time scale of politicians is about 3 years maximum and certainly no longer than the time to the next general election.  They want quick fixes – short term outcomes and headline grabbing results. None of which is conducive to great science.

I was therefore very happy that in response to concerns raised in the house of Lords, the Haldane principle was enshrined in the bill. The Haldane principle, in essence, means that research funding should be independent of government, so that decisions about which research should be funded should be carried out by researchers and not politicians.

But even with this inclusion it remains a challenge for those funding research and responsible for science policy to ensure that there is a climate within research institutions that allows curiosity to flourish.

Training is critical and about more than the scientific method 

This also clearly impacts on the training of scientists.  Debates on how best to fund training of scientists has gone for as long as research funders exist – personally I am not a fan of having all PhD students solely in large centres and think that a mix of doctoral training centres and more individually placed students is desirable.  I do recognise the importance of training and know I would have benefited from more help and instruction early on.  Clearly in a PhD you do have to focus and make sure you complete the aims of the project, but also be alert to new avenues that might open up as a result of the research.

Many PhD researchers do not pursue an academic career – history tells us that and we know there will always be a limited number of jobs in academia.  Training can stand PhD’s in good stead whether they continue to work in science or even leave science all together and the scientific method should instil a rigour in how evidence is gathered and used.  

Training is particularly important to address a major issues science - that of reproducibility.  Poor experimentation and experiments that cannot be repeated do no one any good and threaten the credibility of science.  There can be no excuse for underpowering experiments, sloppy experimental design and poor record keeping.  I remember when I left academia and went into industry at being surprised at the greater rigour I saw in terms of reproducibility, controls and experimental design than I had seen in academia.

Critically, from a funders’ point of view, grants given to research that ultimately is not reproducible is a waste of money.

The challenge of funding focus

One aspect of science policy that has been more problematic is deciding which broad areas of research to fund and how to encourage interdisciplinary research. When I was at BBSRC and went around talking to researchers, this was an area that came up a lot in questions. The Paul Nurse review that underpinned the reorganisation of the research councils made much of the fact that interdisciplinary research was not well funded and I would agree with that.

Deciding which areas to fund is hard and we will never be perfect but so long as we leave a big chunk of funding for blue sky bottom up led research, then we should have the capacity to respond to new and exciting science.  In terms of interdisciplinary research, the research councils do need to do better at this as their existing schemes are very geared towards funding researchers within a particular discipline. But part of the also problem lies with scientists themselves – many scientists are quite parochial and protective of their disciplines. When they sit on grant committees and an application comes along that has say a biological and engineering component, the engineers will say the BBSRC should fund it and the biologists that the EPSRC should fund it – this comes back to being open and not blinkered to opportunities.

Research needs to translate to real world application

Science policy also has an important role in determining how research is translated – how research becomes applied.  It’s important for governments to realise that industry doesn’t operate in a vacuum – even more so now with Brexit and need for the UK to be globally competitive.  The first thing that industry looks for is excellence in research – so this is something that it is vital to maintain.  The second is ease of working with the academics and their institutions.  We have in the UK something called FEC – basically this means the institutions can charge realistic overheads on any industrial collaboration – institutions can opt not to charge the full rate in circumstances where they particularly want to work with an industrial partner, but this happens infrequently.  In our case, it means that instead of paying just the £55K salary including benefits for a post doc we have to pay £110K – the science has to be very good and reproducible to justify that.

Science policy can and does play a role in setting up schemes that promote translation of research and interactions between academia and industry. For example, the BBSRC promotes such activities in a number of ways, such as the Knowledge Transfer Partner (KTP), research and innovation campuses Industrial Partnership Awards and Stand Alone LINK schemes and the promotion of innovation and impact within Universities e.g. the annual Innovator of the Year competition.

This highlights another important fact about science policy – it doesn’t work in a vacuum. If we want to increase economic impact and create new growing companies we need to have the right financial environment.  So government departments need to join up strategically.

Policy that is informed by science  

Talking of Government, it is crucial that science policy within Government is actually informed by science!  A few years ago, when I was working for GSK, I took part in a review of how one particular department used scientific evidence in its policy making.  The results showed that economics, rather than science, informed most policies and the findings in this report did lead to some changes to rebalance the impact of the two disciplines. 

However, I do think that with all the cuts within Government departments, internal science budgets have been cut in many cases and therefore there will be less emphasis on science and as a corollary less science evidence.  This is particularly worrying with approximately 25% of departmental CSA jobs – i.e. 6 out of a possible 24 positions – currently vacant.  Academia needs to be watchful and demand that science evidence is available and seen as important in informing policy within government.

We have seen many clear examples in the recent past and currently where there is a strong requirement for evidence based policy making examples e.g. badger culling, GM crops.

I would end by saying that the communication of science forms a vital aspect of science policy.  Mark Walport said that science is not completed until its communicated and I think this is true.  Organisations like the Science Media Centre play an important role here – but so do scientists.  If we want science to have a prominent role in determining how money is spent by government, scientists have to raise their voice!