Academic research should be done in the public interest, not driven by the aims of a company. But this traditional approach is being continually eroded by the Government's view that science is synonymous with technology, even though there's no strong evidence that pouring money into industrial partnerships does a better job of fostering innovation. Science is much more than just technology. Yet, the research councils expect universities to act like the research and development wing of a corporation.
I do basic research in nanoscience, which is an area that can be easily applied to the commercial world, but the reason I'm doing it is not to develop a product that Procter & Gamble or Toshiba can market in five years' time: it's to address fundamental questions about nature. If I wanted to work in industry, I'd be there – I wouldn't be at a university. I know many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers who want to pursue an academic career, addressing the bigger questions rather than working in industry, but they are increasingly realising that they'll just end up being paid less to do the same research.
Organisations such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have strategic partnerships involving an industrial partner. The research council supplies half the funding – using taxpayers' money – and the company supplies the other half, so effectively the taxpayer is subsidising the company. That's disturbing, especially when it comes to big multinationals that don't have the best ethical record. When academics are being asked to develop protocols to drive up a company's profits, you've got to worry.
I'm certainly not arguing that academics should stay in their ivory towers, and I'm not against applied research or interacting with companies per se. But I am against taxpayers' money being used for research which is neither for the public good nor in the public domain. What most concerns me is that the research councils have recently introduced changes to the grant review process where scientists are expected to justify their research in terms of its potential short term economic impact. The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which should have the greatest commitment to fundamental research, is sadly furthest down this road and has set up an Economic Impact Advisory Council. Like many academics, I have no interest in entrepreneurship – generating profits from public money is not why I became a scientist.
If this continues, the fundamental ethos of university will be eroded: we'll get to a point where research that isn't driven by a corporate aim will be squeezed out. And if universities won't do research that's free from commercial interest, who will?
Philip Moriarty, with Jack Stilgoe at Demos, is organising a public debate, 'University Research: A Public Good?', in London in May. See www.nottingham.ac.uk/physics/research/nano