Some interest debate surrounding the funding and mission of government funded research is taking place in the wake of Minister for State Universities and Science David Willetts speech on making the UK the global science research leader. Professor Stephen Curry provides great coverage of the debate in the Guardian:
Willetts’ musings on role of government in directing science were more interesting, and included some practical ideas for how ministers might effectively access scientific expertise in order to guide research investment. He was careful to emphasise the sanctity of the Haldane Principle and peer review, which enshrine the rights of the scientific community to judge grant applications on scientific merit. Nevertheless, the minister did not shy away from the conundrum that he has a democratic responsibility to shape policy that is beneficial to the UK economy. Such strategic choices will necessarily colour views on research priorities.
The scientific community should be heartened to hear a government minister speak so confidently of the potential of science to feed into economic growth. It was an argument that the community relied on in the run-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010. But scientists remain wary of government interference in what some see as their exclusive domain. Coincidentally, evidence of that wariness was provided in letters from leading scientists to Times Higher Education and the Daily Telegraph in the days following the speech, which criticised what they perceived as excessive interference by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), in the process of awarding public money for science. The signatories to the letters were particularly critical of strategic decisions by EPSRC to focus on particular research areas, to judge the potential long-term impact of the proposed research in assessing applications and demanded rebalancing of decision-making power away from EPSRC officials and back to scientists.