Disgruntled science bureaucrats
Nov 18, 2010
Bishop Hill in Bureaucrats

The science establishment in the UK is somewhat disgruntled by the announcement that one of their senior people inside the civil service is to be replaced by a mandarin rather than another scientist. The kerfuffle is centred on the person of Professor Adrian Smith, a statistician who is responsible for advising the government on where to spend research funds. Smith's role is to be merged with another, and the man to fill the new position is expected to be a civil servant.

John Beddington, the government’s Chief Scientist, told a House of Lords committee hearing that the abolition of the position of Director General of Science and Research (DGSR) at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) “was not discussed with me” and that this was “deeply regrettable”.

Talking heads like Lord May are even more vocal:

It is substantially both stupid and ignorant and it is politically foolish. ... If that person is a successful civil servant they are very unlikely to know much about science.

There is also much discussion of the Haldane principle, the idea that the direction of research funds should be under the command of scientists rather than politicians. I can kind of see the point - I don't suppose many of the inhabitants of the palace of Westminster will have a clue about what are likely to be interesting lines of research that are worthy of funding. The last thing we want is research funding being just a reflection of the political prejudices of the current incumbents.

Having said that, I'm not sure we want research funding to be merely a reflection of the political prejudices of the science establishment either, and I sometimes wonder if this is what we have seen in recent years, with a series of scares apparently promoted by senior scientists.

The unhappiness among the scientific bigwigs has culminated in a letter from the House of Lords SciTech Committee to the prime minister, which can be seen here.

I urge you to take appropriate action to ensure that the post of Director General for Knowledge and Innovation is filled in a way which fully meets the concerns of the Committee. Were the holder of the new post to be other than a senior scientist, there would be a significant risk of damaging the relationship between government and the scientific community and of undoing the good work for science in the CSR. I look forward to your reply.

I don't know about you, but the performance of the scientific establishment over recent weeks smacks rather of a sense of entitlement. The private sector has tightened its belt for the last two years, with pay cuts and short-time working the norm since 2008. Most of the rest of the public sector is at least coming to terms with the new circumstances. Yet the scientists have negotiated a remarkably generous settlement under the CSR - a deal of a generosity that is unheard of elsewhere. Now, to add insult to injury, they are demanding that they should get to decide how the money is spent too, and almost seem to threaten the government if they don't get their way.

It doesn't seem right.

Postscript: Take a look at this. The Department of Business Innovation and Technology, where Professor Smith works, can still afford to (part-) fund a network of 90 science officers posted at embassies around the world. These people spend their time on activities such as "reporting and advising major UK partners on opportunities and developments in science...Influencing key players overseas on UK aims and priorities in science and innovation..." and so on. It really doesn't seem right.

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