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Scientists beware!

The government's pledge to increase funding for scientific research comes with strings attached, warn ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

SCIENCE does not intrinsically promote technological advancement. It concerns the study and understanding of the natural world and its constituent parts.

However, when combined with technological enthusiasm, the synthesis is responsible for radically changing society. We live in an age of scientific funding that began at the start of the 20th century.

To understand this age, we can look to the end of the industrial revolution which produced the work of Karl Marx. As discussed in an excellent answer by the Marx Memorial Library in April, Marxism’s inception as a “scientific socialism” was meant to indicate a foundation on the objective material world beyond the utopian imaginings of other socialists.

What the initial proponents of Marxism meant may be debated but it is certainly true that ideas of “scientific,” “objective” and “unavoidable” truths have captured the imaginations of some later Marxists.

Science also plays a special role in the Marxist theory of societal transition. Scientific innovations applied in factories changed the social and economic relationship between worker and capitalist. Marx was keenly interested in how scientific discoveries might enable the creation of a society that improves ordinary people’s lives.

Entering the 20th century, there was a global recognition that public investment in scientific research might enhance a nation’s technological expertise. The subsequent investment led the transformation of science.

Prominent advocates in the early 20th century for science funding were influential scientists, including a cohort of radical socialist and communist scientists (see The Visible College by Gary Werskey for biographies of some). They argued that it was in Britain’s national interest to invest in scientific research and transform national productivity, as they felt was being done in the Soviet Union.

The campaign was a success, helped by global war, and scientific research grew to become a major industry. Curiously, the prominence of left-wing political thought in high-profile scientists seems to have died with this success. Perhaps due to the widening expertise gap between scientific and political understanding, the natural conservatism of those who benefit from highly profitable industry, or maybe the ever-closer links of research with big business and defence.

The use of science in public life has always been plagued by “scientism.”

This misappropriation of scientific concepts is widespread in the armoury of reactionaries. Science is also misused in debates that are purely political rather than scientific, such as the debate over gender identity, where anti-trans campaigners criticise their opponents as “unscientific.”

It can also be seen in a more subtle form in “anti-political” centrism that promotes conservatism as natural scientific law and technocratic management as the only political solution.

And yet, in the research institutions, and privately amongst researchers, there continues the promotion of research as a public good, and a belief in the importance of communal endeavour, of free sharing of information, utopian blue-sky thinking and internationalism as fundamental to the practice of science.
 
These pro-public-service functions of education and research have been systematically undermined by marketisation, to which recent strikes by university staff are testament. Universities as businesses are booming from the fake stimulus of unpayable tuition-fee loans, and the promotion of other services like hospitality.

On the face of it, science research in Britain continues successfully, up to now with huge amounts of EU funding. However, the proportion of money universities spend on staff is shrinking.

As in other unregulated industries, the work of science is mostly carried out by workers who are young, overworked, underpaid and insecure. The industry relies on the movement through the institutions of these people as either PhD students or “post-docs” after graduation, and their swift exit from productive research.

These categories of workers have contracts of between six months (some post-docs) and four years (some PhDs) and the majority of them, PhD students, will be paid £15,000 this year. They do not expect to apply for permanent research jobs until their mid- to late-thirties, if at all.

Why should the working conditions of a specific group of early-career workers have wider relevance, beyond the clear vested interest of the three authors of this column?

The great technological advancements of our age were made by publicly funded researchers in universities, and industrialised by businesses. However investment in research and development for these businesses remained a key part of their model, despite its high costs and the risk and long-term investment required. The opportunity for intellectual property capture still made business investment in research a sensible tactic.

However, in the war on public funding and ownership in Britain, public science funding has become increasingly bound to business investment. Instead of enabling the return of profit to public institutions, funding is given to universities where they can attract business money.

This in turn incentivises businesses to close their research and development labs in favour of outsourcing risk and low-protection employment in universities.

The investment in research from a business perspective is tiny. The state has funded the labs, trained the researchers and bought the equipment, and the workforce is treated as highly disposable, with no employment protection.

These low-quality university research jobs are actively replacing the professional labs which once promoted real invention outside of universities.

University management are also incentivised by public funding which is based on profitability. Universities seek research with quick returns, and axe programs or entire disciplines to get them. The losers are the scientists who work there, the public who lose the intellectual property they have paid for, and scientific progress itself, which is now subject to the same short-term myopic pressures which stultified and closed the industrial labs in the first place.

This is where Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s special adviser, enters the picture. Cummings is a science-funding nerd and has written extensively about his interests.

He is fascinated by the past funding programs of America, France and the Soviet Union and their ability to harness the power of scientific research for productivity. If his influence is as massive as widely reported, then the additional 0.9% of GDP spent on science funding promised in the Conservative manifesto will be realised.

Such an enormous increase in funding is likely to gain the support of both precarious and permanent scientists, as well as universities unduly controlled by the huge sums flowing through their science departments.

However, the price of the funding is the further encroachment of business into universities and research, and thus the degradation of science. As we brace for this government’s salting the earth of public services, additional science funding should only be welcomed when matched by money in other research disciplines and public-sector provision.

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