'Richard Van Noorden writing in Nature (10 June 2009 | Nature 459, 757 (2009) ) reports that, 'as part of a cabinet reshuffle on 5 June, responsibilities for research and universities were absorbed into a newly inflated business department that will "build Britain's capabilities to compete in the global economy", says a government statement.’
Van Noorden goes onto report that 'Science-policy experts say that the merger, which brings the United Kingdom's science budget under the ultimate control of business secretary Peter Mandelson, might increase the focus on science as the country tries to haul itself out of economic recession. But scientists might increasingly have to justify the economic benefits of their research.'
Whilst I like many will welcome the fact that science can help deliver an economic and sustainable future, I do worry that the continual drive to make all science pay for itself quickly is a repeat of the short termism that saw our global banking system go throough such a difficult period during the last couple of years.
The drive for short term profits as opposed to long term value meant that any source of profit was grabbed at and exploited, sometimes to the detriment of future sustainability and value.
Scientists under pressure to deliver both results and profits can be subject to the same pressures. I don’t think any of the Japanese Government scientists at the International Whaling Commission meeting are there as ‘independents’, but have a very strict briefing to deliver the Government’s short term desires. I guess whoever ‘pays the piper gets to choose the tune’. At the same time, we have to understand that if we pressurize UK and other university’s to deliver short term ‘profits’ they will increasingly come under pressure to take support and monies where they can.
In March 2008 Greenpeace challenged the UK’s St. Andrews University (home of the British Sea Mammal Research Unit) for taking money from Japanese whaling interests. Greenpeace reported that ‘St Andrews University was revealed to have accepted funds for whale research from the Institute of Cetacean Research, the Japanese agency which directs the country's annual whale hunt. Researchers at St Andrews… received £31,900 in 2002 and £5,000 in 2005 from the ICR, which paid for it using the income from whale-meat sales.’ Presented with the information about the funding Greenpeace reported that the university had 'hinted that it won't accept any future funding of this sort'.
I guess my point is that whilst Scientists are free to pursue research, many do it with a conscience and would like to pick and choose where their funding comes from. If we increase the pressure on scientists by making their work contingent on immediate profits, who knows where they may have to go to get the funding they need.
I think St Andrews does some really good work on cetaceans and seals. It does not mean that I agree with all that they say, but that’s the reality of living in a democracy and the challenge of a duality of thinking. Our challenge is to win the debate if we disagree ☺. However, when they ‘have’ to take money derived from IWC condemned whaling (so called ‘scientific whaling’) it does not feel like a fair debate.
But St Andrews and other Universities should never be put in that dilemma of having to take such funding in the first place. The UK and other countries should look to their long term policy on University funding and be careful that they do not ‘reap’ what short term thinking may be making them ‘sow’.
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