UK Petition Pushes Linear Model to the Extreme

June 20th, 2009

Posted by: admin

There is a custom in the U.K. to submit petitions to the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street.  It can be done in person, by mail, or electronically.  Some of the petitions deal with science and technology issues.  One that I saw circulate on a listserv claims that the U.K. government is moving its research portfolio to support research where the results are already known.  As of today, about 1550 people have signed on to a petition pressuring the government to:

“request the reversal of a policy now being applied by the UK Research Councils. This policy directs funds to projects whose outcomes are specified in advance.”

This reads – at least to this American – that the U.K. is essentially supporting busy work – research that is pointless to conduct since the results are known in advance.  Looking further at the petition, there is this text:

“Where a specific outcome can be predicted with confidence, then there is no research.”

“The UK taxpayer should not support investigations with foregone conclusions, however beguiling. UK research must not be guided by wishful thinking, nor relegated to producing footnotes for ground-breaking discoveries made elsewhere.”

There is a bit of a shift in perspective as the text proceeds.

Looking at the first sentence, it seems false to suggest that there is no research in confirming the predictive power of a model or other things that enable the prediction.  Going to the next passage, I’m not sure how foregone conclusions can be beguiling.  The second sentence suggests the real focus of this petition – that somehow the U.K. Research Councils are shifting their support away from groundbreaking discoveries.

In other words, the petitioner has done a lousy job of advancing the kind of argument Vannevar Bush did after World War II to help instill the combination of federal research support and limited management of scientific research that U.S. researchers enjoy.  Nowhere in this position is anything that even hints at Bush’s arguments about seed corn and the necessity of preserving and replenishing those stocks in order to support and benefit other research and development in support of society.

This argument can be reduced to two points: Only basic research matters in producing value and prosperity (something Bush did not even hint at in Science, the Endless Frontier), and groundbreaking discoveries can only be found in basic research.  It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the development of scientific and technological knowledge.  As the petitioner holds a faculty position and manages research in biology and chemistry, he’s more likely being disingenuous than stupid.

There is another petition on the site that better expresses what I think is the underlying concern.  This petition expresses concerns at the switch of U.K. universities to industry research centers, and feels it has restricted academic freedom to conduct basic research.  While it does succumb at the end to this same notion that only basic research can produce breakthroughs,

“that Britain can remain at the forefront of ‘revolutionary’ discoveries instead of dull ‘evolutionary’ science”

it avoids being completely dismissive of work where application is more in mind.  (Both petitioners ought to read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions if they haven’t already).

Unfortunately, the saner petition has only 49 signatures.

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