History lessons predict a less than Golden Age

State funding of science has diminished dramatically over the Tory reign, but a change of government is unlikely to restore the norm, says Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
Over the last 16 years, the state has progressively withdrawn from its historical role as main financier of scientific research and development. If the proportion of Britain's GDP spent by government on civilian science were the same now as it was in 1981, John Major would be lavishing nearly half as much again on civil research and development.

In 1993 money (the most recent year for which comparable figures are available), he would have to spend an extra pounds 1.44bn each year to bring funding levels up to their equivalent at the beginning of the Eighties. Science has suffered in part because it does not fit well with a government committed to marketplace economics. But will all be restored if the pundits are correct and this proves to be the last year of Conservative government?

Many commentators have seen the decline in funding as an aberration of the Thatcher years (continued by her successor) and have assumed the condition of science would revert to the "norm" once there was a change of government. Yet this may be a false perception.

Three recent analyses of science demonstrate that the changes of the last 16 years reflect a seismic movement rather than a superficial phase. In the Bernal lecture to the Royal Society, Professor Sir William Stewart, the former government chief scientific adviser, stressed "the need to bring SET [Science Engineering and Technology] and industry more closely together for mutual benefit ... Our closest ally in promoting a strong science base in the UK is actually industry," he said. He foresaw ever- increasing involvement by commerce and industry in what might once have been regarded as basic research that it was the state's role to finance. The state's modern role was rather "to bring the major funders from the public sector, industry, and the charities together in getting new public sector-private sector ventures off the ground".

Sir William's vision of the future reinforced an independent analysis given in an earlier lecture to the Royal Society by Professor John Ziman, formerly of Bristol University. Although Professor Ziman's perspective is quite different, he, too, thinks we have moved into an age of post- academic science where the majority of research will be paid for by commercial companies seeking to capture the benefit of their investment by appropriating knowledge gained as their own intellectual property. Among other effects, this cuts across one of the traditional values of the scientific community - that science produces "public" knowledge which ought to be shared through the pages of the learned journals.

But the most striking clue suggesting that the changes in science are irreversible comes from an analysis of the learned journals carried out by the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. The report, The Changing Face of British Science, reveals that about 5,000 institutions contributed to Britain's scientific output during the Eighties. Fewer than 100 of these were the universities, whereas more than 2,000 were private companies.

The science being done is changing to reflect the priorities of its new paymasters. According to Diana Hicks, one of the report's authors: "In the next century, British scientific research will be more applied, more interdisciplinary and will be performed by networks of researchers rather than individuals."

In my book British Science and Politics Since 1945, published by Blackwell in 1991 when concerns about the place of science in modern British society were at their height, I identified several phases in the development of science. The state in Britain was at the forefront in establishing institutions to conduct "modern" science in the 17th century - the Royal Society and the Royal Greenwich Observatory - but failed to make the shift from this "age of the academies" to the 19th-century way of doing science in organised university research laboratories.

The First World War marked a further transition, when the British government realised that no modern nation could survive without harnessing science for political ends. But in a peculiarly British sense of compromise, the research council system facilitated the independence of the individual researcher and preserved for the salaried scientist a professional life as free from external direction as that of his predecessor, the gentleman- amateur of private means. Unquestionably, this system encouraged the creativity of British science this century. But this era is also ending. As the SPRU team points out: "Today, academics have no monopoly on knowledge production."

None of this excuses the abusive neglect of science by government over the last 16 years. That extra pounds 1.44bn a year should still be found out of the public purse. But the future can no longer be thought of as a reversion to some Golden Age. For science, history may not be a reliable guide to what is to come.