A science research project in a laboratory

An awful lot has happened in the past 12 months, but when the House of Lords today sat down on Wednesday to consider a report from August 2019 on the state of science research funding, none of the major issues had significantly changed in content, although Covid-19 has intensified many of them.

We only had four minutes speaking time, so I had to park lots of the things that I would have liked to have said.

I didn’t have time to talk about student fees – an issue only magnified by Covid-19. They are a huge weight hanging over student’s heads and a drag on their income in years when they might be expecting to become financially established.

It is a discouragement to study. It affects the poorest who are most likely to be reluctant to take on debt.

When it comes to education and training we’ve seen a gradual shift over decades, from most people learning and training on the job, funded by employers, to more public funding through universities and colleges, to a loading of the costs onto the shoulders of individuals. This is another disastrous privatisation.

Education is a public good – we all gain from more of it – and so it should be paid for from progressive taxation.

I also didn’t have time to talk about the disastrous impacts of Brexit – amply covered in the report, and the failure of the government to resolve so many issues as the end of the transition period approaches.

I would have particularly liked to mention the early evidence of a brain drain, with the movement of Britons to the EU is at a 10-year high, and much anecdotal evidence of a “brain block”, with EU researchers not moving to the UK because they don’t feel certain, or confident about their status, and are worried about falling foul of the Home Office’s hostile environment (as many already are).

But what I chose to focus on was the scope and approach of the whole report. It was by the Science and Technology Committee, and it was about “science research”.

So a limited scope is on one level fair enough. But what is lacking in this report is even a hint of understanding that to assume that “science” can be walled off as a separate area of study, privileged, as the report clearly thinks it needs to be, relying on test tubes and instruments, rather than being integrated as part of systems thinking about the goals of the whole of society, is disturbing.

We hear some rhetoric from government and official sources about the need for systems thinking, about the removal of silos, the importance of cross-disciplinary research, but everything I hear from researchers and academics is that it is just that, rhetoric.

I am told again and again that is very hard to get funding for truly cross-disciplinary work and to get full professional credit for it.

And I encounter many in “science” who treat the economic, social, cultural and political environment as a given, the permanent, unchanging reality in which they have to work, rather than as a constantly shifting landscape that they need to work with economists, sociologists, political scientists and many others so that they can understand the interaction of their activities with broader society.

Excellent work is being done in the UK in some of these areas. Some that I have encountered include the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, the Centre of Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey, and the sadly discontinued Centre for Research into Economic and Socio-Cultural Change, which did brilliant work on everything from care homes to pig farming. There are also independent organisations such as Forum for the Future.

But when I look around the world, leadership chiefly rests elsewhere. I’d point to the kind of work we need far more of – a study carried out by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.

What does this lack of systems thinking mean in practical terms? With the Agriculture Bill before the House, that’s a good area to focus on. A very useful Food Ethics Council research paper reports that the direction of research funding has remained almost unchanged for 20 years, despite the huge shifts in global thinking about agriculture – and the importance of soils, agroecology and systems thinking. There’s an “obsessive focus on wheat” rather than crop diversity that could feed into a healthier food system, centred particularly on vegetables and fruit.

The UK is not on track – as the world is not – to meet any one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to which it is signed up. At the heart of the SDGs, the whole structure of the goals, is the understanding that we operate in a complex, chaotic, shock-ridden world that needs to be thought about holistically, not in silos.

So what’s the overview from all of this? Our universities – like our societies – are in an acutely fragile state, severely lacking in resilience, and being pushed by the government all too often in the wrong directions. The status quo is not an option.

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