Why Labour’s attack on government science policy is misplaced

Sep 24, 2014 by

The last time I listened to Liam Byrne speaking about higher education in Manchester was over 20 years ago when we were both active in Manchester University students’ union. He was a moderniser and a centrist even then. So it was no surprise to hear him deliver such a careful and thoughtful speech at a Labour party conference fringe event.

He refused – once more and more than once – to explain his position on tuition fees, on the unarguable grounds that any policy must be properly costed. But he was very persuasive on the need to amend the student migration rules.

However, it wouldn’t be a party conference without some political knockabout. On this, Byrne delivered. He was particularly critical of the coalition’s decision-making on research funding, complaining that the Haldane Principle – the idea that research priorities should be set by researchers, not politicians – has been thrown out of the window.

Byrne’s accusation is nothing new. Every shadow science minister accuses every science minister of breaking the principle – irrespective of which parties are in and out of office at any time. Indeed, the Haldane Principle was invented as a political football: it is generally thought to be around 100 years old, but was in fact invented by the Tory Lord Hailsham in the 1960s to complain about Harold Wilson’s approach to science.

Byrne’s contention is that the coalition has subverted the Haldane Principle by funding its favourite projects. He says ministers are wrong to become so easily obsessed by new discoveries and inventions that interest them, such as graphene or driverless cars.

But there are three flaws in this critique. First, while the coalition has opted for certain research priorities, it is hard to prove they do not align with the science and research community. Funding has been fired particularly at the “eight great technologies”, which were identified in a speech by George Osborne at the Royal Society back in November 2012.

At the time, Osborne explained that they were based on what the government understood were scientists’ own priorities.

It is true that the political class synthesised scientists’ own much longer lists down to just eight. But there was no process in which priorities that sounded unpalatable were struck out. Instead, it was a process of corralling the vast number of important areas in to a digestible form – without deleting any of them. That is why each of the eight great technologies are so broad. They are: big data; synthetic biology; regenerative medicine; agri-science; energy; advanced materials; robotics and autonomous systems; and space.

via Why Labour’s attack on government science policy is misplaced | Higher Education Network | Guardian Professional.

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