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Unbalanced portfolio

British research councils should still foster basic science.

Researchers may believe in science for science's sake, but governments often have different ideas. They consider it their duty to seek return from the tax monies they spend — a point of view that is reasonable and responsible for someone in charge of public funds.

The trick, of course, is to avoid taking too narrow a view of what constitutes a return. In their efforts to be business-like, government funding officers will often try to measure success with corporate-style metrics and milestones. This may work well for some areas of government endeavour, but basic research is not one of them. Almost by definition, the frontier of human knowledge is a realm that has no milestones and that encompasses many dead-ends and failures for every advance. Viewed purely by the numbers, researchers' efforts can seem grossly inefficient.

The trick is to avoid taking too narrow a view of what constitutes a return.

Some recent developments in the United Kingdom point to the dangers that can arise from this cultural divide. A Special Report on page 1150 describes how government officials, understandably eager for a return on their investment in science, are encouraging research councils to build partnerships with industry, and are redirecting funds towards societal problems such as ageing and climate change.

Such initiatives are a necessary part of any nation's science policy. Indeed, many of the research councils' chief executives, who are perhaps eager to win more money for their programmes, have willingly gone along with them. The challenge is to strike an appropriate balance. In practice, continued pressures have led some councils to cut their basic-science portfolios. They have trimmed investigator-led grants, and slashed funding for fundamental fields such as astronomy and high-energy physics in favour of innovation campuses and government initiatives.

Where adequate funding has not been supplied, the emergent effect of the pressures from government is tantamount to an attack by abandoning basic science. If unchecked, this neglect will lead to the loss of scientific subdisciplines and a decline in such intangible benefits as inspiring the young and national pride. And the pressures on research councils may get tougher, as historical declines in science spending within government departments also need to be reversed.

The person responsible for developing advocacy for research council budgets is the director general of science and research, currently absent within government. When Adrian Smith, a statistician currently principal of Queen Mary, University of London, takes up the job in September, he should make it a top priority to ensure that the government fully appreciates the added value of basic science and the costs of its neglect.

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Unbalanced portfolio. Nature 453, 1144 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/4531144a

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