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The Royal Academy of Engineering isn’t the only one with some explaining to do

Before the summer break, just as the country’s professional societies seemed united in their determination to protect basic science against government cutbacks, the RAEng told the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) that the only science worth protecting was that which would benefit the economy in the near or immediate future. Particle physics—particularly the work going on at CERNs Large Hadron Collider—should be chopped in its favour.

You can argue till the cows come home about this, and the RAEngs proposition has some support among, for example, the mechanical engineeers. But when even right-wing, market-obsessed politicians like Peter Mandelson and Nicolas Sarkozy are speaking up for the central role of basic science in advanced economies, you have to take a second look.

More to the point, what exactly is the RAEngs authority for taking the line it did? After all, David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, urged the government to continue backing basic research in a joint letter to Research Fortnight, which first reported the RAEng stance: “The UK’s future will not be helped by a ‘battle’ for funds between basic research and engineering application,” they write: “they need each other.” (Though it seems that IChemE has now changed its mind)

The background to all this is the governments comprehensive spending review, which will set out spending plans for the years 2011-12 to 2014-15. Every government department has been asked to submit to the Treasury its plans for budget cuts respectively of 10, 25 and 40 per cent. The grim results will be published on 20 October.

As part of its review Adrian Smith of BIS, the department responsible for science funding, asked six organisations—the Royal Society, the RAEng, the British Academy, the Council for Science and Technology, the governments scientific advisers and the CBI—to contribute their views on four specific questions before BIS made its submission to the Treasury on July 16.

RAEngs submission to BIS was accompanied by a letter from RAEng president and former BP boss John Browne which said: “We believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term, is foreseeable.”

Browne is a hugely influential figure. He is an advisor to axe-mad Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who is on record as saying that the coalition government should be far tougher on public spending even than the Thatcher administration of blessed memory. So one big question is whether, in adopting this rabid anti-particle-physics posture, Browne is dancing to Maudes tune. If so, that would be a deeply serious matter.

Equally unclear is whether Browne has any support from elsewhere in the RAEng. An earlier version of this article–which appeared on the website of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) before, for unknown reasons, it was hastily withdrawn—asked whether the fellows of the academy or its 30-member council were consulted. After all, the academys website says its efforts to “guide informed thinking, influence public policy making, provide a forum for the mutual exchange of ideas, and pursue effective engagement with society on matters within our competence” are made “using the leadership and expertise of our fellowship.”

The banal reality, the RAEng now tells us, is that its council established an advisory group from among its own number “to develop a rapid response” to BISs four questions: “As the Council is elected by the membership as a whole,” says the RAEngs email to us, “it was acting in accordance with its delegated powers.”

Perhaps so, but adopting as RAEng policy the views of an unknown “advisory group” hardly matches the grand claims the academy makes for the purity of its decision making.

The RAEng website says the academy bases its policy suggestions “on impartial advice and quality foundations.” And one of its strategic priorities is “to lead debate by guiding informed thinking and influencing public policy.” We cant judge how closely the RAEng stuck to these principles until we know exactly how it arrived at its conclusion that basic science wasnt worth protecting from the likes of Francis Maude. For now, the academys behaviour appears consistent with neither the words lead nor debate.

Although the RAEng eventually put its submission up on its website, it issued no press release, and the Institute of Physics, which expected as a courtesy to be kept informed, said in a letter leaked from elsewhere that the RAEngs stance came as a surprise. Nor does the RAEng appear to have consulted the learned institutions which, with the Royal Society, nominate its fellows. The chemical engineers and, by all accounts, the mechanicals were kept in the dark, though the chemicals now appear to have sided with the academy. Just who did it consult?

Further, who does the RAEng think it represents on an issue of such transcendant importance as the future of UK physics? Does it really believe that view was derived from impartial advice from its fellows and that its dissemination of that view was a proper use of its influence?

There is more than room for doubt. Meanwhile, however, the IET and others have their own questions to answer, not least about their willingness to collude with the academys determination not to engage in a public debate about an issue of such transcendent importance for UK science. Are these bodies genuinely interested in open discussion of the future funding of UK science? The IETs publishing arm, for one, appears not to be. Or are they pusillanimous, self-absorbed gentlemens clubs who would rather kowtow to the government mania for public spending cuts than engage in a debate that might generate some distasteful but vital disagreement?