Monday, 13 April 2015

Deconstructing the Science Strategy

Derrida's Car
My undergraduate degree was in English literature, and I still bear the scars. I find it hard to read any text without wanting to deconstruct it. This contagion even affects my TV viewing: I can’t enjoy Breaking Bad without considering its playful, almost Joycean, re-imagining of estrangement, fatherhood and myth.

So imagine my delight when, on the same day that the results of the Research Excellence Framework were announced, the government let slip Our Plan for Growth: Science and innovation. Rarely have we been offered a strategy so loaded with the unspoken, so ripe for unpicking.

The first and most deafening silence related to the social sciences and humanities. The humanities are mentioned four times in the 78-page document; the social sciences three times. Seven references altogether, six of which are shared. The references are largely in passing—two are as labels in a spider graph—and neither area is mentioned in any detail or included in any of the plans.

This would be fine if the strategy were intended only for the natural sciences, technology, engineering and maths, but it’s not. It is intended for all research. It says it covers "what the Germans would call Wissenschaft, the natural, physical and social sciences, engineering, technology, the arts and humanities...this strategy uses the word science to encompass all of the above".

"All of the above." You can almost imagine a vague hand being waved in the direction of the social sciences and humanities. If the government really believed in Wissenschaft, it would have a place for them in its plans. Instead, it concentrates on big science such as the eight great technologies: big data, satellites, robotics, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, nanotechnology and energy. 

It’s all very James Bond, and if there’s one thing we know about 007 it’s that he doesn’t have any time for the arts, unless he’s attending a concert that ends with a bobsleigh chase in a cello case.
What we have here—to go back to my undergraduate days—is a semiotic disconnect. Ferdinand de Saussure made the distinction between the ‘signifier’ (for example, the word ‘dog’) and the ‘signified’ (a dog). Here, we have the government suggesting that the signifier ‘science’ describes Wissenschaft, when it really only describes the more Anglo-Saxon science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

Lip service is paid to Wissenschaft until section two: "Nurturing scientific talent". Here the talk is all about increasing the number of "young people achieving high grades in maths and science at GCSE". Students of the arts and humanities are mentioned in this section, but only to say that they can benefit from good, solid training in the STEM subjects.

This disconnect is clear elsewhere in the strategy, most notably in the use of the signifier ‘innovation’. In this case it’s not so much the author who is at fault; rather, he or she is reflecting an ongoing evolution of language. ‘Innovation’ no longer signifies the development of new ideas, devices or processes, but instead the commercial exploitation of them. It has become synonymous with ‘enterprise’, another signifier that has slipped anchor from its signified. It’s now all about generating income.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all these drifting signifiers, the strategy is very seductive, from the inclusivity of the endlessly used first-person plural ("our plan", "we must rise to these challenges") to the glossy imagery and aspirational rhetoric, similar in tone and type to what I offered for EPSRC Bingo. Perhaps it’s an unavoidable trait of science strategies.

It certainly bears a passing resemblance to one of the most famous exhortations to foreground technology, Harold Wilson’s speech to the Labour party conference in Scarborough in 1963: "In all our plans for the future, we are redefining and we are restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution...The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry."

However, as David Edgerton argued in The 'White Heat’ Revisited: The British Government and Technology in the 1960s, this rhetoric led to very little change. "Despite Labour's publicly proclaimed enthusiasm for technology and science, in government there was a critical examination of the basis of science and technology policy, which led to policies for technology quite different from those implied by the rhetoric of the 'white heat': Labour cut defence R&D significantly; sought a commercial return from public investments in civil technology; cancelled many large projects; was sceptical about a number of European ventures; and ceased to believe that R&D was a key issue in economic performance."

There are rumours circulating that a future Conservative government would not maintain the ring-fenced science budget. If this is so, then the experience of Wilson’s government is a cautionary one: bold talk but little action.

However, Wilson’s speech lacked specific promises, whereas this strategy is drowning in them. An awful lot of figures are thrown around: it talks about committing £5.9 billion to science capital, £2.9bn to grand challenges and £3bn to individual projects, and trumpets many statistics setting out the UK’s position. But it is difficult to see how they all fit together, and there’s a suspicion that there’s a generous portion of double counting going on. It blinds with numbers and confuses with clarification.

The fact that the strategy will launch five reviews is, perhaps, the most telling detail, and it illuminates the whole. As well as "a review with [sic] the research councils" (a mere nine months after their triennial review), there will be reviews of STEM degree accreditation, intellectual-property markets, metrics and the relationship between research and business.

This, to me, is what really underlies the strategy’s drifting signifiers: a decisive shift towards backing STEM research for commercial benefit, and a reorganisation of funding mechanisms to allow for this. I can see the Whitehall logic behind this, but I do fear for the long-term health of our Wissenschaft. Concentrating on market-focused STEM will be to the detriment of our research base as a whole.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 13 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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