Go back

Second fiddle

It’s time for humanities to take centre stage

When Chancellor George Osborne decides to announce the research councils’ priorities for capital investment, it is no ordinary day in the life of UK research. On 9 November various establishment figures took their seats at the Royal Society decked out in their finest grey suits. They were assembled to hear Osborne announce funding for the European Space Agency and to outline eight technologies that the government says (on advice from scientists) will need capital investment.

The selected technologies are linked in three ways: first, they represent technologies where our scientists are already productive (synthetic biology); second, they are in areas where there is a clear human need (agri-science, energy storage and regenerative medicine); and last but not least, they represent areas of promising if not compelling commercial potential (data and computing, advanced materials, robotics, and space technology).

Following the chancellor’s speech, Royal Society president Paul Nurse declared that science “is being moved to the centre of the Treasury’s thinking”. And soon afterwards a chorus of voices including that of Mark Walport, the government’s incoming chief scientific adviser, made similarly encouraging if slightly guarded noises of approval.

So just how encouraged should we be that the second most powerful politician in the land announces a modest funding increase and chooses to spend a morning with scientists?

In one sense science, if not at the centre of the Treasury’s vision, is now inside the department’s periphery, perhaps for the first time since Labour’s science minister David Sainsbury persuaded Gordon Brown’s Treasury to invest for the longer term. This time the main influence on Osborne is clearly universities and science minister David Willetts.

But as the cautious reactions to Osborne’s speech testify, celebrations would be premature. Some, such as the founders of the newly formed Council for the Defence of British Universities, will see the chancellor’s intervention as the latest example of unwelcome state interference in academia—and proof that the Haldane Principle exists in name only. Curiously, Paul Nurse is among the council’s founding members. Asked how he could both support and criticise the government’s position, Nurse said that his support for the CDBU is out of solidarity with his colleagues from the humanities.

The Royal Society president has a point; they deserve more than a walk-on part in the research councils’ capital-spending framework. Humanities research today is not the preserve of the lone artisan. Researchers increasingly work in teams and rely on computing power on a scale that rivals the sciences, with imaging, robotics and design all pivotal technologies.

Anyone who doubts the value of the humanities to the economy and to growth needs to look no further than the Dyson Group, arguably our most successful technology company of modern times outside of IT. Despite his recent comments in The Times, founder James Dyson did not train at a centre of excellence in the sciences, but at the Royal College of Art, as Willetts knows well. Next time we hope he’ll be able to convey it to the chancellor too.