by Roland Jackson, Sciencewise Executive Chair (twitter: @Roland_Jackson)
The UK’s seven Research Councils invest around £3bn each year in research in the medical and biological sciences, astronomy, physics, chemistry, engineering, social sciences, economics, environmental sciences and the arts and humanities. Each operates under a Royal Charter, which has three broad elements: supporting basic, strategic and applied research; advancing technology and exploiting research outcomes for economic and social impact; and supporting the communication of research outcomes, public awareness, engagement and dialogue. The allocation of budget to each Council is decided politically, through the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, and thereafter the individual grant funding decisions are taken within the Research Councils, supposedly according to the Haldane Principle.
One might expect the make-up of the governing bodies (confusedly called the Councils), which are ultimately responsible for spending the delegated budget, to reflect the three Charter responsibilities, judiciously mixing expertise in research, exploitation and societal dimensions. Yet on examination, the membership of the Councils is surprisingly narrow. While it is invidious to classify individuals into single categories, since many hold dual positions or have moved between sectors, to a first approximation the effective centres of gravity of membership look like this:
This does not seem right, if each of those three strands under the Charters is to be taken seriously. Indeed, the ‘industry/exploitation’ category contains people predominantly from private sector organisations; in other words those from the user-base in terms of translation and exploitation almost entirely exclude the not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors. At a time therefore when the directions and priorities for scientific research and technological development are ever more significant, both for promoting economic growth and the wider public good, those who sit with the immediate responsibility for determining those directions and priorities do not properly reflect the diversity of those with a legitimate interest.
Does this matter? After all, the budget allocations have been decided by a democratically-elected Government, and there are other ways of bringing in these perspectives. All the Research Councils engage with stakeholders and publics in a variety of ways, but these vary in nature and extent. Perhaps that is not unexpected; after all, the issues with which the different Councils deal, in terms of wider societal impact and ethical dimensions, are very different. The model of stakeholder and public dialogue suitable for one Council may therefore be quite different to that for another. Nevertheless, at the governance level one would expect to see some strategic and systemic consistency (and that is without even considering the process of allocations between Research Councils). To take a couple of examples, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has a Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel which I chair, and the Medical Research Council has an Ethics, Regulation and Public Involvement Committee. But I don’t believe that is enough, and indeed not all Research Councils even have comparable bodies within their governance structure.
Reasons for bringing in more diverse voices at the strategic level of Research Council governance are themselves diverse. They include: greater legitimacy in a participative democracy; different and relevant experience and expertise; challenge to established ways of operating; open policy making in the broadest sense. The objection may be advanced, and indeed has been advanced to me, that it is difficult to identify people from these ‘constituencies’. I see that as no different in principle to selecting from academics or industrialists, who form the vast majority of current Council members. On this analysis, I do not believe that a sufficient diversity of voices is properly heard within the decision-making processes of the Research Councils. The balance is not ‘right’, in several senses of that word.