Occupy RCUK! Or why science funding matters

This first appeared on the Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

Compared to Canada and Australia, Brits might be forgiven for feeling a bit relaxed about the relatively pro-science stance our government seems to take (the odd “flat earth love-in” notwithstanding).

But beware politicians who come baring science scented rhetoric, or at least be ready to ask which bits of science they are so keen on, put to what ends. Because it’s not just the size of the science budget that matters, it’s what you do with it.

See, for example, yesterday’s report from Scientists for Global Responsibility; on how research is being directed towards developing aggressive weapons rather than talking the roots of conflict. Or the University of Manchester’s £64 million deal with BP last year, to explore “Advanced Materials.” Advanced materials which are especially useful for squeezing those hard-to-extract fossil fuels out the ground. Or the big smiles from Cameron and Cable at the Big Bang Fair last spring, as they ushered our nation’s youth towards careers with Shell and BAE Systems, Or when the Natural Environment Research Council, our official body for environmental science, decided to celebrate its ability to help “de-risk”  the activities of oil companies in the polar regions. Whose hopes for our collective future do those bits of science serve? Whose pockets?

Many important debates about how we might best apply scientific energies get obscured by arguments about the need for “pure” research. But put down the spherical physicist (imaginary ideal case that doesn’t exist in real world) because large chunks of science are already being directed. And so they should be.

The idea that at least some scientific work should be focused towards key social challenges informs how we organise science the world over, and has done for as long as we’ve been doing science on a large scale. This doesn’t mean we tell scientists what to find. It just means that, because we believe in science’s power as an engine for change, we think about which direction we point in in. The idea that science should be directed really isn’t – on a policy level – controversial at all. The question is who gets to direct it.

For example, the environmental sciences body NERC has, as its number one strategic goal, “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change and the increasing pressures on natural resources”. Dealing with climate change is their moonshot; NERC are our people who keep an eye on these things. I for one am glad we invest in some brains on that issue.

Considering this expressed goal, we might be a bit taken aback by a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas research which was quietly offered with a very short deadline a few weeks back. A cynic might argue they wanted it to slip out reasonably unnoticed over the summer. We might even possibly wonder if it was delayed so as not to coincide with the Balcolme protests. Because it is a bit suspicious.

Before you get too angry, there is also a DTC in wind funded through the EPSRC (engineering council). But this new centre does seem a bit odd, especially coming from NERC. It’d perhaps be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking. But they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking. When the BP materials centre was announced last year, the Nature news blog mused that that, as corporate labs wither, industries were looking to campuses to fill their research needs. Similarly, this new centre from NERC does feel a bit like someone, somewhere is taking the piss.

PhDs are important. That’s why research councils are strategising at the level of organising doctorial training centres. DTCs are controversial across academia for this reason – strategy is easily a code for cuts – and there was some fuss when NERC said they’d bring them in. PhDs are a key part of scientific labour in that they do a lot of the actual research, but they also train and make new scientists, so a centre for training like this is designed help encourage more work in an area and strengthen it as a long-term academic field. They are a way to plan the future of science, and with it a way to plan the future of our planet.

It would be understandable if other NERC funded scientists, not to mention the British public at large, asked questions. Who decided this was a good idea? As I’ve argued before, the governance of the research councils are far from open, and that’s a failing in terms of both doing good science and democratic accountability. It’ll be interesting to see the results of the Platform/ People and Planet work on the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in UK universities, but I suspect one of the most interesting results will be what they haven’t been able to find out about.

Unpicking the politics of science funding gets harder still as public research does more and more work with industry (see George Monbiot’s “monstrous proposal”). This issue of collaboration connects to another issue in the structure of science funding we should all be paying a lot more attention to; the move to collaborative funding where it is easier to access public funds if you can also bring some resources from industry. There are lots of advantages to this, but if over-applied, it limits us to research which serves the status quo rather than disrupts it.

Science is one of the places we can find hope when it comes to dealing with climate change. But it’s also, potentially a source of a lot of damage too. Protest camps at sites for possible exploration – as we saw at Balcombe – perhaps show activism moving further upstream than equivalent targets at power stations or airports. But a really forward-thinking protester might want to consider occupying Research Councils UK.

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