On Monday last week, there was a lecture in a pub, with the subject being “Science Policy and the General Election”. Being a subject in which I am quite interested, I was disappointed to be unable to attend. But the good people at the Pod Delusion have given us a podcast of the lecture which, while missing visual aids that were (evidently) used at the lecture, allows us to listen in retrospect.
And I have a bone to pick; my expectations were not met.
As a person who spent several years studying science policy, I was quite interested in the lecture — it steps into an area of expertise for me (science policy), while shining a light on something that I know very little about (the actual policies present and possible within the political framework in the UK). Science policy is complex and multi-faceted, and the lecture would obviously be unable to touch on all aspects of science policy. I was curious to see where the focus would be, and what would be said.
Unfortunately, I would be disappointed. The lecture can be summed from the following (paraphrased) quote: “My vote is decided based on the answer to a single question — which party will provide the largest budget for science?”
The lecture was entirely about public funding for science. Trends in spending, and why spending on science is good for science (duh) and good for the economy. It just barely touched on how that money should be spent. And it worries me — it gives the impression that the spending of taxpayer money is the end-all and be-all of science policy; it’s all just pounds and pence. This is simply not so. While commitments to spend money can certainly be a good bellwether to determine a politician’s approach to science, a pot of money is not a policy.
Budgets exist to support policies. The government wants to take certain actions, and commits money to spend on those actions. If the military budget (in a time of peace) is increased three times over, you can bet that the government is planning a military operation, and that money is being allocated towards achieving the goals of that operation. If the US government increased spending on health care without any programs for health care, would that mean anything? Where would that money go?
Budgets, important though they are, are not policies in and of themselves. One can imagine a policy shift of “do what we are doing now, but throw more money at it”, which seems to be what the people speaking want. I’m not sure that sounds like such a wise policy when put that way — two questions come immediately to mind:
If the current system works, then why would it need more money?
If the current system does not work, how would more money help?
The arguments made at the lecture indicate that the current system works, but lacked arguments regarding how more money would improve things — a simple assumption that more equals better was made. While I’m willing to buy into that assumption, it makes for a weak argument and is unlikely to convince people who do not believe that the science budget should be increased to change their minds.
Moreover, it was a little upsetting that larger policy issues were passed over completely in the charge for more money. As the speakers all earn their money (either directly or indirectly) from the government’s science budget, it was enough to generate a cynical attitude. A politician’s approach to science has a large impact on a wide range of policies — global warming and energy to name just two. A fear of science would lead one to deny climate change in favour of business interests, for example. Or to avoid nuclear power in favour of other technologies that allow the politician to feel safe.
And while all of the above — funding, climate change, energy policy — are all important, perhaps more important is an ability to understand the impacts of technological change, and put policies in place to handle the issues they raise. It is fifteen years since I sat in a dorm room installing Napster on a computer, but the issues created by that technology are only starting to be understood by those in power, and those with vested interests in stalling that technological change have been allowed to engage in stalling tactics (at the average consumer’s expense) for over a decade.
Putting the correct framework to support and police a technology that can transform society is something that can truly encourage the pursuit of such breakthroughs and help reap any economic rewards, while minimizing any damage done by new technologies.
A policy requires a goal, actions to meet that goal, and funds to take those actions. There was a question towards the end of the podcast regarding the need for a cause to support science spending. The answer was a qualified “yes”, but it missed the point. The focus of the lecture — giving science more money — is the result of science policy having a tangible goal, and the cost associated with those actions needed to meet that goal. The goal is not a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
The current goal is to stimulate economic growth, from what I can gather. Science is just one of many areas of investment, and as long as it is being treated as one piece of an “investment portfolio”, it has to play by rules that make it a high-risk, high-reward type of investment.
Knowing how much money the government is planning to spend on science is less important than the knowledge of how they are going to spend it, or deal with the (often unpredictable) discoveries that result from their funding. Those are real science policies. A science budget based on economic indicators is just a piece of an economic policy, with no science policy in sight.