dollar driven

Posted on May 11, 2009
Filed Under philosophy, politics | Leave a Comment

Here’s George Monbiot from The Guardian discussing the nature of research and new (bad) ideas government have about linking research to funding. Though, the specifics refer to Britain, its a philosophy that is increasingly prevalent around the world…

Why is the Medical Research Council run by an arms manufacturer? Why is the Natural Environment Research Council run by the head of a construction company? Why is the chairman of a real estate firm in charge of higher education funding for England?

Because our universities are being turned into corporate research departments. No longer may they pursue knowledge for its own sake: the highest ambition to which they must aspire is finding better ways to make money.

Last month, unremarked by the media, a quiet intellectual revolution took place. The research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for acad­em­ic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct. The councils define impact as the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy. But how do you demonstrate the impact of blue skies research before it has been conducted?

The idea, the government says, is to transfer knowledge from the universities to industry, boosting the economy and helping to lift us out of recession. There’s nothing wrong, in principle, with commercialising scientific discoveries. But imposing this condition on the pursuit of all knowledge does not enrich us; it impoverishes us, reducing the wonders of the universe to figures in an accountant’s ledger.

Picture Charles Darwin trying to fill out his application form before embarking on the Beagle. “Explain how the research has the potential to impact on the nation’s health, wealth or culture. For example: fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom … What are the realistic time­scales for the benefits to be realised?” If Darwin had been dependent on a grant from a British research council, he would never have set sail.

The government insists that nothing fundamental has changed; that the Haldane principle, which states that the government should not interfere in research decisions, still holds. Only the research councils, ministers say, should decide what gets funded.

This is the sort of humbug newspaper proprietors use. Some of them insist that they never interfere in the decisions their editors make. But they appoint editors who share their views and know exactly what is expected of them. All the chairs of the five research councils funding science, and of the three higher education funding councils (which provide core funding for universities), are or were senior corporate executives. These men are overseen by the minister for science and innovation, Lord Drayson. Before he became a minister, Paul Drayson was chief executive of the pharmaceutical company PowderJect. He was involved in a controversy that many feel symbolises the absence of effective barriers between government and commerce. continue reading

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