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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Moving on from Haldane: what are the challenges to steering STI for social and economic goals?

By joanna.chataway, on 10 February 2022

If anyone wants an overview of current S&T policy in the UK at the moment, you could do a lot worse than listening in to a recent discussion hosted by the Foundation of Science and Technology. Panellists were Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Government Scientific Advisor and National Technology Adviser, Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UKRI, Naomi Weir, Programme Director, Innovation at the Confederation of British Industry and Professor James Wlisdon, Director of Research on Research, University of Sheffield. A fantastic lineup and a conversation that touched on many complexities of science, technology and innovation policy.  The importance of engineering policy was mentioned as part of the overall picture but much less was said about this, which is a pity[1].

Female lab researcher

Photo by Julia Koblitz on Unsplash

In this short blog, I want to highlight three things that I took away from the conversation. The first is that we are moving towards an era defined by efforts to steer research and innovation to societal and economic goals. The second is that an increasingly complicated S&T policy landscape is not matched by sufficient attention to the knowledge infrastructure that we need to implement policy. Third, we need to officially acknowledge that the Haldane principle is at this point wildly insufficient as a guide to how to maintain research transparency and integrity.  Its demise needs acknowledgement and serious thought given to its replacement.

So first, the idea that science funding and science policy should primarily be about funding brilliant science to be taken up later by interested parties is now a diminishing part of what the science policy and funding infrastructure in the UK is about.  Increasingly there is a commitment to steering research to address social and economic goals and to developing an infrastructure that maximises payback to society from investment.

This has been the case for a while, but the creation of the Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), chaired by Sir Patrick as National Technology Advisor, deepens the intention of the government to steer and direct research in ways that have social and economic payback.

One possible implication from this is that we are moving into an era where there will be a more open discussion about the ways in which funding and science priorities are determined, along with more knowledge and reflection on what works and what doesn’t.  If this is to happen, we will need new ways of thinking about how we facilitate engagement, learning and iteration.  The OSTS and NCST will need to engage with a range of data sources and stakeholders to determine how best to do that steering.  A partnership project called Steering Research and Innovation for Global Goals (STRINGS) has begun to look at these issues in relation to the SDGs and across different parts of the world. More focused analysis might be useful within the UK.

My second point follows from this – there was very little said about the mechanics of findings ways to fund and use research more effectively. James Wilsdon mentioned the work of my colleague, Geoff Mulgan, on collective intelligence but it didn’t get picked up.

The implementation, methods and approach of policy initiatives to maximise the impact of research and innovation will be fundamental to the success or otherwise of the new policy infrastructure and approach to trying to maximise paybacks from investment in S&T.  Reflecting on the experience of establishing the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO), a partnership which Geoff, I, David Gough and Ayden Wilson lead, Geoff has recently written on the importance of knowledge synthesis capabilities across research and in policy domains. The tsunami of advice and information is not being matched by efforts to synthesize knowledge in a way that is effective and addresses severe limits to absorptive capacity amongst a range of policy stakeholders.

The emphasis being placed by Ottoline Leyser and UKRI on the range of people relevant to research and innovation, including intermediaries and knowledge brokers is important to building more effective use of knowledge. The Areas of Research Interest (ARI) is a move to try and build research agendas for UK government departments.  ARI fellows, Professors Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver have also established an initiative called Transforming Evidence which contributes to thinking about the knowledge infrastructure and process needed to build solid foundations for efforts to use research more effectively.

The International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO), led by STEaPP and the EPPI Centre at UCL, is one of a set of new initiatives that aim to work across research and policy decision making.  We’ve found that we need to policy landscapes that we operate in if we are to avoid gate-crashing in unhelpful ways.  We need to understand where we fit and how we can maximise the ways to be policy-demand-led and synthesize knowledge in a way that maximises its usefulness.

All of these initiatives are relevant and useful to building the kind of research/policy infrastructure that we need.  Much more thought and effort are needed, however, to systematically develop the capabilities and process to cohere, and make sense of, evidence and learning to inform the government. This is in addition to the work that is needed to try and address the issue of a lack of absorptive capacity in policy organisations and institutions.

Third and finally, the move to create a OSTS and NSTS is another nail in the coffin of the Haldane principle.  Amongst other things, UK science policymakers have tended to look to this principle for broad guidance on how to delineate between policy for science (policy which guides the broad allocation of resources and effort) and science for policy (the independent advice needed by governments).  Peer review is one of the core mechanisms to ensure independence.

The concept may have been more powerful than the messy reality of science funding decisions for some time now. But breaking away from the clear rules that it offered is difficult and multidimensional.  Sir Patrick’s current dual role as GCSA and National Technology Advisor is emblematic of the tensions, but only the tip of the iceberg.  The issue is – what is the new conceptual framework to ensure that quality underpins spending on publicly funded research and evidence?

In an article called ‘The Republic of Somewhere meets the Republic of Science’ albeit from a different angle, I and Chux Daniels, wrote about some of the multiple tensions related to ensuring that relevance on the one hand does not come at the expense of compromised independence.  Since WW2, in some parts of the world, whilst they have perhaps enshrined some bias and inequalities, we have built institutions and norms that have protected against the more blatant forms of political interference.  But in recent years the potential threat to these institutions is clear.   If the Haldane principle is outliving its long life as a guiding star, we do need something else to take its place.  A basic starting point might be an overview of all the public sector organisations and institutions in the STI policy landscape together with a description of their purpose and governance arrangements.  This has to be followed by some clear thinking about how independence and integrity is maintained.

The FST discussion highlighted the very welcome purpose and energy that is driving UK science and policy at the moment.  We just have to figure out how to implement it effectively and with transparency.

[1] Discussion about the need for social science to inform new directions in science policy was absent which is even more of an omission

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