Science and politics: who pays the piper?

One of today’s thorny questions is the amount of freedom scientists should have to pursue the questions that interest them. It is a question with a long history. When I was young the argument was about pure research or applied. Pure research was undertaken because of the interest of the researcher, following a lead, a possibility, sometimes an obsession. Applied research sought to find the answer to a problem. Pasteur’s finding a cure for rabies in dogs is the classic example.

The academic world has always prized pure research, and the research grants process was built around it. In the Australian Research Council and its predecessor, the Australian Research Grants Committee, we ruled out projects that industry might pay for, even if they were good ideas. Some really clever researchers would get money from industry or one of the industrial funds, and then  restyle their work to make it look attractive to us as well.

The problem was that all this pure research didn’t seem to lead anywhere. It produced PhDs, and journal articles and promotions in universities, but what else? I could say that it was civilising Australia, but that didn’t cut the mustard in government. A Minister once asked me to list the number of patents that had issued from the pure research we had funded: the answer was one, after more than twenty years. He was unimpressed. The Department of Finance was unimpressed, too, and that made it hard to get more money. Research had become an outcome of teaching, for all academics were expected to do research. Our research activities covered virtually the whole of human experience, which meant it was very thinly spread.

In the 1980s the new buzzword was ‘priorities’. Researchers hated it, because most would be excluded. But it was hard to resist. I thought solar energy research was plainly obvious for Australia, since we were running out of our small store of oil. But once you start on the priorities track you can find all sorts of good reasons to make many other fields of research priorities too. Governments liked the notion, because at least there seemed to be some point in all the research.

At about the same time the federal government looked hard at the CSIRO, long a bastion of pure research, though the names of its various divisions suggested that they were devoted to specific problems. The outcome was a decision that 30 per cent of the CSIRO’s income should come from selling its services to industry. Garth Paltridge, who was a senior officer in the CSIRO, has written a most interesting account of what has happened, called ‘Has the CSIRO lost its way?’, and his answer is, Yes, it has. I was particularly struck by the following passage in his essay:

‘perhaps [the CSIRO’s] existence can be justified most easily (and among other ways) by the need for scientific advice to federal and state governments on issues of public good. Such issues generally fall into what these days some scientists call “post-normal science” where the facts are uncertain, values are in conflict, the stakes are high, and the matter is perceived to be urgent. They are usually highly politicised, so that official advice about them needs to be perceived by both politicians and the public as independent and unbiased.’

To me, this has been the worst outcome of the move into ‘priorities’: research has become an adjunct of politics. You can see this most clearly in ‘climate change’. I read through the long list of project titles in that field supported by the Australian Research Council, and it seemed to me that most if not all seemed to take anthropogenic global warming for granted, even though we still cannot distinguish the ‘signal’ of AGW from natural variability.

To those who work in research, these external forces on what they do are deeply upsetting, and make the life of a researcher much less enjoyable, I think, than it once was. John McAneney, whose work on normalising disaster losses I wrote about a few days ago, has written a thriller about the tensions that come into the working environment through these forces. It’s a good yarn, and you can get a copy of Shifting Sands from Amazon, or from Abbey Books, if you’re in Sydney.

The trouble is, that the money that pays for the research overwhelmingly comes from the public purse, and it’s no longer enough to say that this researcher is excellent, and should have what he wants. There’s just too much excellence about, and there was thirty years ago, when I first got into the research-funding business. Somehow or other we need to change the current system, in which research is tied too closely to the politics of the day, into something less baneful.

But it can’t be a return to the past.

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  • pjb253 says:

    Don, Just part way through reading Icon in Crisis: The Reinvention of CSIRO and having had the opportunity to talk to people at its book launch.
    In 2001 the Backing Australia’s Ability innovation funding program was announced with no additional funding for CSIRO. This seems to have put the fear of God into the CSIRO upper management. The result has been the pursuit of “big hairy audacious goals” BHAGs and the adoption of a matrix management system with Flagships responsible for Outcomes and the Divisions responsible for science and capability. The transition appears to have been painful and extended.
    The unstated goal seems to be the attraction of more government funding and I was assured verbally that while I could rely on the “integrity” of the science, CSIRO would never utter one sentence that might displease the source of funding

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