Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Statistically Speaking, It's Bullshit On A Bagel

Everyone in academia is in uproar over the Coalition's despicable blackmail tactics: essentially "Research what we tell you to or find yourselves new jobs."

And yes, obviously, it's a horrible idea and a horrible precedent (though Professor Jones is right, it would probably have been worse had we not got the money).

Still, maybe we should be optimistic.  Maybe all that we need to do is follow this simple three step process:
  1. Research "Big Society";
  2. Conclude "Big Society" is obvious bullshit;
  3. Tell everyone "Big Society" is obvious bullshit.
I mean, it can't possibly be as though Step 2 would be difficult.  It seems entirely obvious that this is simply a way to spin massive social spending cuts, and/or a pre-emptive move to blame us for when the country ends up in the toilet.

Unless I'm wrong about that.  In that case, it really would be worth checking that out.


Tomsk said...

I haven't been able to find out the truth about this yet. AHRC strongly deny any such shenanigans (but then they would):


IMO the strategic research areas are themselves against the spirit of the Haldane principle regardless of whether the Big Society is one of them. And AHRC isn't the only RC to have those.

Dan Edmunds said...

OK sell the Haldane principle to me. Why shouldn't the government have a say in how tax payers money is spent in respect of research?

Tomsk said...

Because the people best placed to judge whether scientific ideas are worth pursuing are the experts in the field. There are countless major scientific discoveries that have come out of people pursuing their own curiosity that never would have been made if the government had directed their research agenda.

That's not to say the government shouldn't also fund its own research. For example the Ministry of Defence funds plenty of defence research (although I think that's mostly outsourced now). But that sort of thing should be done directly by government departments.

Dan Edmunds said...

OK, but I'm going to raise a "but?" here. Isn't it likely that by having these experts make that decision that is actually going to reduce innovation? My assumption being that:

1) There would be a desire to stick with the status quo. Stuff that is currently getting funding should continue to get funding.
2) Presumably the committee is not made up of of all researchers, therefore there is a strong likelihood that the committee would be biased towards areas that those individuals work in.

I agree entirely with the idea that a lot of the time you don't know what research is going to generate results so it is important that those generally overlooked areas get funded - I'm just trying to get my head round the idea that people who are actually involved in research should be responsible for where the money is spent - That just sounds like the very definition of a conflict of interest.

Tomsk said...

You're right, (1) is a problem and always has been. There's a lot of inertia against big new ideas in science, although up to a point that's useful because most new ideas are wrong. The most fashionable research does always get the most money which makes it harder for things to come out of leftfield. But on the other hand it's usually fashionable for a reason.

(2) is also a problem in that the most well-connected people will influence the research priorities of the research councils more strongly than others. But they may have it in for their rivals in which case they'll steer money away from them...

I don't think conflict of interest is too big a problem because the grant reviewers will not be connected in any way to the proposals being reviewed, though as in all walks of life there can be old boys' networks involved. Plus most grants are submitted in response to a call from the research council, so the areas to be researched are not decided by the people who are reviewing the grants (although they will have input in the process). This is the level at which governments may try to interfere.

Anyway I just got a grant funded so I'm not complaining right now!

SpaceSquid said...

Unsurprisingly, my take on this is pretty close to Tomsk's. I'll add that the government "Having a say" is fine in a general sense; I might not agree with how the government might choose to fund, say, health research vs astronomy, but I don't have a problem with them making calls in that sense.

The issue comes when specific topics are demanded. More particularly, when particular political philosophies are demanded. It's at least arguable that the "what's fashionable" angle to funding biases politicians at least as much as researchers, it's just that (again) we're much more specific in our fads and trends.