CSR and painting by numbers

We are packing up.  No, no, no, not in that sense.  It is just that we are moving office in a few weeks. 

I am ashamed to say that I am the last of our team to begin the task of separating the recently aquired detritus from the must-keep documents that tell something of our history.  But I am already unearthing a few gems.

Yesterday evening I stumbled across the annual ‘handbooks’ that we published in the eighties and nineties.  These guides list our then member charities along with details of the grants and types of project each of them funded (details we now publish online).  All contain a short foreword.  Curiosity made me look at those from the early eighties:

1983 – ‘…there is no doubt that, generally speaking, university research is well-served by the charities.  The funds available not only provide a significant contribution to the overall level of funding, but are very effective in the way they can provide relatively small amounts of funding when and where this is most needed.’

1984: ‘There is widespread concern that research institutions have been weakened considerably during the last few years.  The charities have responded positively to help support and suatain the biomedical research base in the UK.  It will be noted that over 30% of the member charities have disbursed monies in excess of their income during 1983.  This is an exceptional response ata a difficult time.’

1985: ‘….there can now be little doubt that the dual support system of medical research in the UK is very shaky and there would seem to be a shift in government priorities from the public to the voluntary sector in maintaining the research base in our universities and teaching hospitals…Indeed, it would seem that the only growing contribution to medical research in real terms is that provided by the voluntary sector…’

and 1986: ‘ There can be no excuse for Government to give less; rather we would hope that the evident interest and concern of the British communitywould be reflected in a more generous allocation of public funds to the MRC…’

The hardening of their tone matches the parsimonious treatment of science  during Margaret Thatcher’s first and second terms in office.  But how easily they could fit into the discourse of the last few months.

Tomorrow sees the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announcement.  I suspect it will be a day largely about numbers big and small.  But assessing what it means in practical terms will be more difficult.  Don’t believe what the Government says about CSR being sorted, there’s a whole lot more wheeling and dealing to be done about how the Departments slice up the budgets.  Tomorrow will feel a little like being served a rather burnt creme brulee.  Every sense will tell us how unappetising it is as a dish but we won’t actually know until we have broken through the crust.  And we will need something bigger than a teaspoon to do that.

After tomorrow, and sooner rather than later, we will need to look beyond the numbers and understand the driving philosophy behind them if we are to lead science properly in the coming years.  A number of political commentators have already written that the deficit has been a gift to a Coalition Government intent on radically restructuring government and society.  I suspect that science and technology will not be left out of this and we might get some better idea of the philosphy when the Government publishes its growth paper in the next few months. 

Last night I stumbled across a paper by David Edgerton and Kirsty Hughes, and first published in 1989, entitled ‘ The poverty of science: A critical analysis of scientific and industrial policy under Mrs Thatcher.’   (1) They unpeel and help us understand that administration’s approach to science by making us see the relevance of the wider political contex, what they call a central policy agenda of ‘freeing private enterprise, of reducing intervention and of cuts in public expenditure’ – of re-shaping a slimmed down state to better serve industry.  It is reminiscent of what we are seeing today as Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in The Guardian yesterday

Their criticism of the science lobby at the time is that it failed to understand or challenge this.  They conclude with the line: ‘Flexibility, variety and competition are  needed in studies of science and technology policy, as well as in science itself.’

So, let’s crunch the numbers tomorrow but let us also be wary of painting by numbers in our challenge to government in the coming months and years.

(1) Public Administration Vol 67 Winter 419-433