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Institutions, or networks?

William Cullerne Bown

The new report from CentreForum, the Lib Dems’ favourite think tank (see Cover Story via link below), reminds us that the UK’s remaining publicly funded research establishments are under sustained strategic pressure from four directions.

First, many evolved to provide robust technical services to government. Think of DNA testing at the Forensic Science Service. But this work is being steadily commodified by the march of technology.

Second, they look increasingly anachronistic in an age when few politicians can imagine the state as anything other than small. Think of the various veterinary sites, or the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and images of 1950s men in horn-rimmed glasses spring to mind. This may be grossly unfair to scientists at these establishments today, many of whom are in the thick of 2011 science. But the sepia tones remain nonetheless.

Third, they are up against the universities. By comparison, the research establishments often look expensive (all those pensions, all those buildings), weak scientifically (show us your citations) and inflexible (all those life-long civil servants instead of disposable postdocs).

Fourth, though they often address themselves to deep, long-term study of nationally important systems, it is not obvious what benefit they provide. Westminster voices can too easily ask whether our dwindling fishing industry needs the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. Modern governments are intolerant of this intrinsic vagueness, and making such work attractive to private firms is even tougher. This is why the labs of the Central Electricity Generating Board, for example, were killed off during privatisation.

Yet 10 establishments remain in public ownership, which CentreForum says employ 20,000 and cost over £2 billion a year. The think tank wants more privatisation, arguing that the commercial success of places like LGC Limited (formerly the Laboratory of the Government Chemist) shows that the organisations would be more effective once privatised and less of a drain on the public purse. CentreForum’s conclusion may be right, but its evidence is thin and its reasoning is shallow.

This may not be entirely the think tank’s fault. However sceptical of the policy wonks’ motives, the decision of most of the remaining public research establishments not to cooperate with the study that we report today was a very 1950s-ish mistake.

Nonetheless, the problems are real. It makes no sense only to consider the (bits of) the research establishments that survive today. Privatisation often involves large cuts in the work that is actually done. Ignoring that is like ignoring the dead in a war. For instance, the UK stands on the verge of a huge new round of power infrastructure investment that could run to £100 billion. But the CEGB’s labs are among the dead on the privatisation battlefield and are no help. The Energies Technology Institute is probably too little, too late to provide the solid technical grounding that such huge investments should have. What, for example, should we make of smart grids?

Equally seriously, the report has failed to get to the bottom of the relationship between some of the key scientific agencies and government. It thinks the important word is “impartiality” whereas it is in fact “trust”.

At the peak of the foot and mouth epidemic in March 2001, Tony Blair chaired a crisis meeting at 10 Downing Street. His chief scientific adviser, David King, set out the modelling showing that the disease would soon reach a tipping point after which there would be no stopping it infecting the entire British herd.

“How long have we got?” Blair asked.

“48 hours,” replied King.

The wheels began to turn and that night every slaughter house in the country was knocked up. At dawn, the culling began. The epidemic was contained.

Things like that don’t happen without deep levels of trust. Lose that, and the price can be very high indeed. Look how South Africa has been ravaged by AIDS since its then prime minister, Thabo Mbeki, decided that he didn’t trust the advice his scientists were giving him and joined the camp of HIV-deniers.

But the story King tells about foot and mouth is double edged. It shows how important trust is, and thus points up a weakness of private solutions. But it also shows the failures of the the research establishments—why did King have to take the reins away from the scientists in the government’s veterinary labs?—and that there are alternatives.

Today, the UK government has an ever-stronger network of chief scientific advisers in the departments. Is it possible that this light-footed and extraordinarily cheap network approach could provide more of the resilience and depth of expert support that government needs? It is a case by case judgement, with which the CentreForum report has not much helped us.