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Co-opting research

Engagement with the state comes at a price

It has become an almost unspoken rule in UK universities that researchers, especially publicly funded ones, should ‘engage’ as much as possible with policymakers in areas where their work impinges. But this kind of public engagement is not the unalloyed good it is usually imagined to be.

In an article on page 20 of this issue, Alice Bell of Imperial College, London, draws attention to some of its drawbacks. In a nutshell, Bell makes the case that the scale and volume of engagement may be reaching the point where it threatens academic independence.

A number of contributing factors have nudged us towards this point. A decade ago, public relations fiascos surrounding genetically modified food and mad-cow disease lent further impetus to the burgeoning number of programmes and advisory boards linking research to government. Scientific advisers, and associated advisory apparatus, have been established across government departments—a positive development, most would accept.

At the same time, the ‘impact agenda’ introduced by the last government and continued by the current one encourages researchers in all disciplines to engage with policymakers whenever they can. This pressure comes from both the impact component of the Research Excellence Framework and the impact-related demands of the research councils. Academics have been told that it is their job not just to generate knowledge, and to teach, but also to take that knowledge to the corridors of power, and sell it there.

This is all well and good, insofar as it demolishes the ‘ivory tower’ of the not-so-distant past—and there hasn’t been much resistance to it. But as Bell points out, these changes carry unannounced costs.

All of this co-option, for example, has coincided with a general atrophy of groups of researchers, such as the anti-nuclear weapons group Pugwash, that could speak freely, openly and sometimes rebelliously on research-related issues. Who needs to labour away in a voluntary outfit like Pugwash when they can sit on a committee in Whitehall and talk directly to power? To ask the question is, of course, to answer it. The committee member may have gained reimbursement of travel expenses, but has also lost his independent, public voice. Whenever he tells the press that he’ll be taking his views ‘directly to the minister’, he has, in fact, allowed them to disappear.

Lest anyone think this loss is somehow hypothetical, let us take an example from this year; the handling of the nuclear power issue after Fukushima. The public reaction of British academia to the Japanese crisis has been universally craven, with everyone pedalling furiously to keep the nuclear show on the road. Journalists have to go to the US to find academic voices that take issue with the UK government’s line that Fukushima has no bearing on the UK’s regulatory arrangements for nuclear power. But the general pertinence of the points raised by Bell run way beyond that single example, into drug regulation, food safety and countless other areas of public policy.

The government’s web of advisers needs to be large enough to give Whitehall access to a range of inputs on a plethora of research-related policy issues. It must not become so large as to ensnare universities in a web of influence and patronage, subservient to the state. If that happens, they will be renouncing their origins and their still-considerable prestige, and betraying their primary public function as the homes of free inquiry.