Friday, 8 April 2016

A Hundred Years of Haldane

Philosopher-politician Richard Haldane
It was a very odd experience to read about the higher education green paper as I sat on a train rattling past Romford and Chelmsford. I was on my way to the first Eastern Academic Research Consortium conference at the University of Essex, and I was receiving emails and tweets about the approaching tsunami.

“If all its measures are enacted as planned,” suggested one commentator, “[it] will represent the biggest changes to the higher education sector since 1992.” I looked out the window. Chelmsford looked pretty much like it had always done. There was no evidence of “sweeping changes”, no apparent “battle lines drawn”. Just a grey autumn morning, rows of houses and early-morning dog walkers.

While the green paper focused squarely on teaching, there was a brief final word on research. “We are committed to maintaining the dual support funding system, the Haldane principle and scientific excellence, and envisage a simpler system enabling the research base to increase its strategic impact.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the Haldane principle is one of the most sacred ideals in UK research funding: the idea that decisions on how to distribute research funding should be made by academics and not by politicians. What most people don’t realise is that, while sacred, the Haldane principle has never really existed.

At the end of the first world war, Richard Haldane chaired the Machinery of Government Committee, which sought to understand and standardise the remit and methods of government departments. Haldane was the former secretary of state for war, a philosopher-politician with a penchant for Schopenhauer and Hegel and a CV including a role in founding the London School of Economics, Imperial College London and the Territorial Army.

The resulting Haldane Report emphasised the need for objective intelligence to inform the decisions of government. “The value of systematic investigation and accumulation of general regarded of great importance.” To this end it thought that “Departments [should] avail themselves of the advice and assistance of advisory bodies so constituted as to make available the knowledge and experience of all sections of the community affected by the activities of the department.”

In fact, rather than specifying the separation of politicians and academics, the report seemed to be suggesting closer ties. “So long as advisory bodies are not permitted to impair the full responsibility of minister to parliament, we think that the more they are regarded as an integral part of the normal organisation of a department, the more will ministers be enabled to command the confidence of parliament and the public in their administration of the services.”

Thus, what we understand by the Haldane principle is a convenient conceit that has gained momentum over the course of the last century. David Edgerton of Imperial College London put it succinctly when giving evidence to the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee: “There is no Haldane Principle and never has been.”

Indeed, as this ngram shows, there wasn’t even a reference to the Haldane principle for almost fifty years; it was forgotten, and only dug up in 1964 by Quentin Hogg as useful political ammunition to defend the government against the Labour opposition’s plans to centralise control of research. “Ever since 1915 it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department itself.”

Since then, the principle has been questioned and attacked, called ‘effete’ and undermined. And yet the overall pattern has been a hardening of the principle, which is now seen as more inviolable than at any point in the last century. In 2011 when the new coalition government seemed to be strong-arming the Arts and Humanities Research Council into including Cameron’s Big Society in its Delivery Plan, there was uproar. Both the government and the research council had to robustly deny any such intention.

I believe the secret of its longevity is in its original ambiguity. Its broad lines and generous dimensions are hard to argue with, all the more so as it has become a byword for integrity. Like peer review, it is shorthand for a system that guarantees excellent, objective research.

And yet, while it stands against political interference in research, it can exist alongside proclamations like the government’s science strategy with its eight great technologies. “When it comes to fundamental research,” the strategy stated, “it remains the case that those at the ‘coal face’ of research are best placed to identify the key questions and opportunities to advance knowledge.” But, by outlining what it perceives to be the grand challenges, isn’t the government doing just that?

This ambiguity is going to become even more uncertain if recent reports ahead of the Nurse review turn out to be right. “One...possible recommendation is to create a ministerial committee to oversee science spending across both the research councils and government departments,” reports Research Fortnight , Funding Insight's sister publication. This suggests a return to the actual wording and original intention of the Haldane report, which was supportive of close ties between departments and advisory bodies.

Interestingly, the government alluded to this interpretation in its science strategy. It said that, while only one part of the original report had come to represent the Haldane principle, “all six [elements] are as pertinent now as they were in 1918; these are the six Haldane principles.” In the strategy the government wrote that the six-headed hydra was that:

    • research and evidence was important to the development of government policy;
    • each government department should provide funds to answer specific policy questions;
    • there should be a department of government charged with funding general research questions;
    • the choice of how and by whom that research should be conducted should be left to the decision of experts;
    • the questions and topics to be tackled should be considered as a result of close collaboration between the administrative and the general departments; and
    • there should be a department that supports research applied to trade and industry.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the government’s reference to Haldane in the green paper; it might be supporting an altogether different principle to the one familiar to us.

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

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