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Feb 24 2012

I am Dr Faustus

Ananyo Bhattacharya writes in the Guardian that “Scientists have sold their souls – and basic research – to business“. I wish, respectfully, to dispute this statement.

The article is built around the assertion that basic research in the UK has been corrupted by the idea that it must demonstrate a degree of usefulness, in particular to commercial interests.

Bhattacharya says:

“it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of game-changing ideas and inventions have not come about as a result of scientists addressing the needs of business.

This is utter cobblers, have you heard of the Industrial Revolution? Do you know that that power is measured in Watts, after the steam engine designer James Watt or that the units of energy, Joules, are named for James Joule a brewer at the forefront of technological improvements for his brewery. What about the transistor, invented at Bell Labs? How about Lavoiser and the foundations of chemistry?  These people may well have appeared to do their research as what we would describe as a “hobby” but they were strongly motivated by the businesses in which they worked at a time when the corporate research laboratory simply didn’t exist nor did the university research department. Even the work that Isaac Newton did was very relevant to commercial interests in his time, the motions of the moon and planets which can be derived from his laws of gravitation were important to navigation, and therefore trade. His work on the telescope can be seen in a similar light. The weaker version of this argument is that single causes for scientific discoveries simply do not exist, they arise from a combination of factors including straightforward curiosity, commercial interests, dependent discoveries, national prestige amongst other things.

Science has also been part of the entertainment business, it still is. Robert Hooke was employed by the Royal Society to provide scientific demonstrations to its members, similarly Michael Faraday was employed at the Royal Institution and long before electricity was used to do anything useful it was a part of the repertoire of travelling lecturers.

In common with many scientists, much of my work in academia was funded at least in part by industry including Courtaulds, Nestle and Unilever for whom I now work. There’s only a subset of scientist who work in areas which attract no direct industrial funding.  Frankly, it is insulting for the rest of us to be told that our work is devalued because of those contacts we have had with industry. Industry is valuable to research because it asks interesting questions, and demands interesting things. How do I make a computer out of plastic? What must a drug that cures Alzheimer’s Disease do? What properties must my avalanche defence barrier have?

It is some form of arrogance to demand money from the public purse whilst simultaneously exclaiming that you can’t possibly describe how you will usefully spend that money; that the fruits of your labour are simply impossible to evaluate. Can you imagine a school or a hospital running this way, let alone a business?

The article also references the “unmeasureability” of basic research impacts, I think there is a degree of truth in this in particular the idea that an impact statement can be written for each and every grant and that the detail of that research proposal can be meaningfully given an “impact value”. However, this approach misses out the critical element of every research project: people.

Most of the people doing research in our university departments will leave them to do other work elsewhere. Trained people are the measurable impact of every research project; their training in basic research skills; their education in specific research skills around their core topic and only finally their knowledge in the very specific area they were taken on to research. As I mentioned earlier several companies spent moderate amounts of money on me through my academic research career what they got from that was not the publication output, I’m confident that my scientific impact in terms of citations will be largely forgotten in a few years time, the important thing was me!

 

6 comments

1 ping

  1. Michael

    Great post Ian, but :

    “It is some form of arrogance to demand money from the public purse whilst simultaneously exclaiming that you can’t possibly describe how you will usefully spend that money; that the fruits of your labour are simply impossible to evaluate. Can you imagine a school or a hospital running this way, let alone a business?”

    Unfortunately hospitals often do run this way — this post begins to explain why it is really difficult to value inputs into healthcare:

    http://www.health.org.uk/blog/why-is-demonstrating-value-for-money-in-healthcare-so-difficult/

    However, the task being difficult is no excuse for not trying!

    CI: A significant part of my job is finding ways to helping Drs show that their plans for innovation will provide value for money.

    1. Ian

      That’s interesting – from contacts long ago at college I’d got the impression that data collected in the NHS was often of the “what we’ve always collected” rather than the “what would be best to collect” type. And from our recent experience there is certainly a huge quantity of data collected.

  2. beckyfh

    Great post! It never ceases to amaze me how much of the work that trained scientists do gets left out of the discussion of Science with a capital ‘S’. The characterisation of mixed motivations in the history of science – pragmatics, commerce, entertainment, status – is spot on. The only thing I’d point out is the extent to which the early Royal Institution was focused on ‘applied science’. Agriculture, commercial chemical analysis, leather tanning, investigation of optical glass for navigation, and so on went alongside the diffusion of knowledge through lectures.

  3. Ian

    Thanks!

    I must admit my knowledge of the Royal Institution was mainly gleaned from a biography of Faraday which I read quite a while ago.

    In the associated twitter discussion the example of quantum mechanics was used as an area of “basic research”, but this field grew out of studies of black body radiation coming and the photoelectric effect which relate to the applied fields of heat and steam engines and telegraphy.

    None of this is to claim that curiosity driven research is never a factor, simply that it fits into a wider framework.

  4. Sudders

    Few scientists would argue that there is no place for any industry funding in science. But that is not the argument is it? Indeed surely part of the point is that applied research should be funded by industry, leaving government funding for those projects that are either too risky, whose time scales are too long, or which have no obvious immediate application.

    No one would claim that no applied research has ever had an economic benefit, but I wonder if “applied” research has any more economics benefit that non-applied. Certainly I have just moved from a very non-applied department to one that is very much focused on the applied, and I see an awful lot of work that is applied only in name: for example, studies that are mostly basic science, but done in a disease cell line to try and make it sound relevant. The trouble with this sort of thing is that in the end such studies are neither good basic nor good applied science.

    I would be interesting to find a way of quantifing this. Perhaps proportion of applied vs basic science publications that get cited in patents.

    1. Ian

      My issue with the original article was that it made the sweeping statement that all the great scientific advances and inventions came without addressing the needs of business. This is a gross generalisation and ignores how science has happened over the centuries.

      In my view the basic/applied isn’t a useful way to divide up science.

      (Patents tend to cite other patents, rather than other scientific literature).

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