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Martin Rees: The importance—and limits—of the Haldane principle

The relationship between scientists and government is about balancing power and priorities, says Martin Rees.

The Haldane principle—that scientists should decide how science funds are spent—is important for research universities. Part of what attracts researchers to faculty is that, in return for their teaching, they can spend time on questions of their own choice and get the necessary support. Their peers are best placed to judge how such support should be allocated. Dismantling this approach, at a time when nations including China are imitating the United States in introducing something similar, would make UK universities less attractive to mobile talent.

When academics extol the freedom to choose their research topics, they risk being accused of an arrogance that disregards obligations to the public. But there’s a good response to such allegations. People who are committed to the problem they’re tackling are more likely to do significant work. Their choices are anything but frivolous: their professional reputation and a great deal of their time are at stake.

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