Tag Archive: scipolicy

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!