Friday, 1 June 2012

Privatisation: the Ministry interfering at Hogwarts

Our universities are being privatised, or so many on the Left would have us believe. But how true is it? And is it necessarily a bad thing? In a series of features over the next few weeks, I will be investigating several areas of privatisation at Imperial College and at universities across the UK, areas where corporations are filling a role that used to be public.

I’ll look at the Careers Services at our Universities, to try to find out why many students are dissatisfied with the variety they offer. I’ll discuss Corporate Partnership schemes, to see whether academic-industry collaboration really can be a good thing.

But this week I’ll look at every academic’s nightmare: the Research Councils.

 A case study: the EPSRC

Far to the west of here, in beautiful Swindon, you will find the head offices of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). They are the organisation which decides how to distribute the government’s £740 million Engineering and Physical Sciences budget.

The EPSRC is remarkable mainly for its inability to use words: it conveys no meaning whatsoever in whole pages of text. The three “high priorities”, for instance, are “Delivering Impact. Shaping Capability. Developing Leaders.” Like all partisan political writing, the language here is intended to deceive. “Delivering Impact” in fact means “Funding only those areas which businesses want us to”. “Developing Leaders” is a euphemism for “Funding only those researchers whom we have funded in the past”. I confess, after weeks of research, to have no idea what is meant by “Shaping Capability”.

But in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) its management-speak, the EPSRC has done a good job of convincing the Government to give it money. Indeed, its budget has fallen only 3.7% in real terms since 2007/2008, compared with total research council cuts of 25.2%. Regrettably, having money is only half the battle, and the EPSRC’s new funding plan threatens to stall entire areas of research.

Mathematics, for instance. The Queen of the Sciences, according to mathematicians (the slave of the sciences according to everyone else), is currently a victim of the new “Delivery Plan”. Since July 2011, EPSRC fellowships in mathematics (the means by which postdoctoral researchers obtain funding for their projects) are available only to statisticians.

That is to say, all of pure and applied mathematics will be excluded. Current and future PhD students in Algebra, Analysis, Geometry, Mathematical Physics, Logic, and all of non-statistical mathematics will have to find other ways to fund their research.

“This will force many of the UK’s best PhD students to leave the country to get their first academic job, and will prevent us from attracting the best foreign postdoctoral researchers,” according to Cambridge mathematician Burt Totaro, “If EPSRC continues this policy, British mathematics will face mediocrity in a decade.”

This is not a question of austerity and cuts. As I noted above, the EPSRC budget has fallen only 3.7% since 2007, but mathematics research grant funding fell by 54% over the same period. It is an attitude problem brought on by the perception that pure and applied mathematics don’t have sufficient economic “impact”. In other words, businesses aren’t interested.

And it’s true, businesses aren’t interested in mathematics, because the research tends to be quite far ahead of its time: a theory developed now may not be used in physics or engineering for another 10 years. Businesses, however, are by nature only interested in short-term gains: try to convince your shareholders that their falling share prices will pick up again in a decade and they will laugh in your face. And then sack you. It should come as no surprise that few companies want to invest in mathematics.

And here is the problem: the EPSRC equates the value of a subject with business interest in it. Governments love this, of course, because the economy will boom while they’re in office, and crash after they’ve gone. But for the UK it is self-evidently disastrous. So how did this “business-impact” position come about, and what can we do about it?
David Delpy, CEO of EPSRC, and Gordon Brown. One has been accused of "central planning and micro-management" and "squandering British taxpayers' money." Can you guess which? (Clue: not Gordon)

A brief history of funding

The famous Haldane principle states that decisions over how to allocate research funding should be decided by a council of researchers. This supposedly keeps academia free from government influence, or any outside interference. The principle has generally been in use since 1918, but a few decades ago Margaret Thatcher decided to shake things up a bit.

In the 1980s, Research Councils came under the influence of a government policy to “strengthen the links” between science and business. In his book Captive State, George Monbiot explains that, “Britain [...] was renowned for generating scientific breakthroughs, but these seldom translated into economic success, as our discoveries were commercialised elsewhere.” Thatcher’s Government thought this a wasted opportunity, and so decided to let businesses influence research.

In practice, this policy change resulted in “business leaders” being promoted to Research Councils to “ensure that the needs of firms are fully taken into account in decisions on the direction, nature and content of publicly funded science and technology.”

In effect, large businesses would suggest an area of research that would benefit them, and the Research Councils would fund it. As is now glaringly obvious, this policy simply led to companies getting the Government to pay for research which they would otherwise have paid for themselves.

This was the first significant undermining of the Haldane principle, the second came with the arrival of our current government.

In December 2010, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (it’s telling, isn’t it, that business and science funding are dealt with by the same Government department) published spoken outa document called the “Allocation of Science and Research Funding” which subtly reworded the Haldane Principle.
“The Haldane Principle means that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves,” but Governments can set “key national strategic priorities,” and “ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities.”

In other words, Governments cannot choose which individual proposals to fund, but they can ask the Councils not to fund anything in Pure or Applied Mathematics.

Looking at the EPSRC in particular, the document states: “During 2011-15 EPSRC will deliver increased impact by engaging more strongly with business,” and it will “act to improve further the quality of PhDs it funds [...] so that the skills base generated is most valuable to industry. ” It’s worth reading that again: “[...] so that the skills base generated is most valuable to industry.”

The document’s section on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is even more imposing on academic freedom: “BBSRC will prioritise actions to aid economic recovery, drive growth, and influence public policy,” “BBSRC will focus on extracting economic benefit,” “BBSRC will provide [...] high-quality PhD training to boost business critical R&D.”

Back at the EPSRC, a very sinister video for the 2011/2012 Delivery Plan states, “While our Strategic Plan set out how we will accelerate the pace of change, our Delivery Plan sets out a transformative agenda.” So far, so remarkably uninformative. But listen between the insufferable jargon and the real agenda becomes apparent.

The Delivery Plan is “built around a Sponsor model of Research Management in which funding is viewed as a strategic investment and not as a transfer of funds without obligation.” The EPSRC must remain “committed to generating the fundamental knowledge and the skilled people essential to Business, Government and other research organisations.” “A world class research base is valuable only insofar as it generates economic and social value.” “Anything that is excellent will have impact if the pathways are right”.

Yes, “anything that is excellent will have impact if the pathways are right”. Make of that what you will.

What the future holds

The councils today look much like you’d expect after 30 years of “change”. In the EPSRC, for instance, half of the council is made up of “industry representatives,” (scroll to the end for more info).

Two weeks ago, nine Nobel laureates sent an angry letter to the Telegraph calling, stating that, “the EPSRC is failing to maintain Britain’s global research standing,” and (appealing to the Telegraph’s natural readership) accused it of “squandering British taxpayers’ money.”

“Through manipulating the processes of peer review to meet policy objectives and establishing favouritism schemes, where substantial funding packages are given to a few selected individuals identified by its own administration, the EPSRC is no longer allocating funds on a fair and transparent basis,” said the letter.

In other words, allowing business-people and Government ministers to decide what to fund leads to “favouritism” and unfair distribution of funding. Should it come as any surprise that business-people want to fund particular areas (their own areas) at the expense of others? Should it come as any surprise that the Government’s agenda doesn’t coincide with what is best for the country?

In September 2011, twenty-five high-profile mathematicians sent a letter to the Prime Minister complaining that the “EPSRC’s model is one of central planning and micro-managing research. Civil servants in an unaccountable quango are picking winners, deciding which science to fund based on their perception of strategic priorities. They call it Shaping Capability.” The letter argued that the Council’s refusal to consult actual scientists was “likely to cause irreversible damage” to science in Britain.

Professor Richard Thomas of Imperial has also spoken out against the Council. “EPSRC often measures the quality of an area of mathematical research, or of an individual researcher, by the amount of EPSRC funding it has received,” he said, in a letter to the EPSRC. “There is a real risk of unfairly directing funding to those have received EPSRC funding in the past.”

Ah yes, this is what the EPSRC calls “developing leaders”.

Referring to Mathematics in particular, he laments that people who “have no training in mathematics whatsoever, are being forced to decide the level of funding to areas of mathematics whose names they can hardly understand.”

A general picture is emerging here of a Government wanting to exercise more control over universities, and to let businesses profit while the country suffers. In true neo-liberal style, the idea that universities (those pillars of civilisation) are sacred and should be exempt from the flawed and hostile world of short-termist money-making appears to have not occurred to our dear Government.

Indeed, the desire to prove that Britain is “open for business” threatens all academia, the one area in which the UK really does lead the world. It is only appropriate, then, given the significance of this matter, to end with a remarkably apt quotation:

 “Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged... A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement,” said Professor Umbridge.

“Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.”

“There was some important stuff hidden in the waffle,” said Hermione grimly. “‘Progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged...pruning wherever we find practises that ought to be prohibited.’ It means the Ministry’s interfering at Hogwarts!”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Industry Representatives on the EPSRC:

Paul Golby, former director of E.ON

Andrew Blake, Managing Director of Microsoft Research

Jack Boyer, a general “entrepreneur”

Julia King, former Rolls Royce executive

Pierre-Louis Viollet, a Vice-President of EDF

David Watson, a director of IBM

Jeremy Watson, a director of Arup

Tony Wood, a head of Pfizer

1 comment:

  1. As an academic I found many of your points spot on and very well researched!