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The science and technology revolution will be forged in the embers of a smoking ruin: UPDATE the cuts extinguisher

UPDATE 30th March 2021

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's 'The World This Weekend' on the 21st of March 2021, Paul Nurse attacked the likely cuts in the UK’s science budget with "Over £1bn cuts just at the time when science is saving the nation. It makes no sense". Nurse is a major influence as the Director of the Crick Institute, itself looking at major cuts, past Royal Society president and winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for medicine. 2015 review of UK research councils led to the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that brought science closer to the centre of government. It seems his well-considered report about strategic leadership of science policy through the research councils has been discarded. A lack of leadership has somehow failed to work out how the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe is to be funded. The result is uncertainty seen by TEFS back in December. This could amount to up to £2 billion and a loss of at least 10,000 scientists. Earlier this week on reported by Times Higher Education reported more comments from Nurse (24th March 2021 ‘Sir Paul Nurse: UKRI cuts are ‘existential threat’ to science’) “If you were to lose about £1.5 billion, it would be an existential threat to scientific research”, He added this advice "The prime minister and the chancellor have got to realise the danger of the decisions they are making - or rather not making. They still have time to reverse it.”  But time is running out as other countries across the EU and elsewhere plan increases in their research endeavours.

UPDATE 23rd March 2021

Following on from the government’s announcement last September of ‘Reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education’, yesterday saw a new ‘Review launched to reduce red tape for UK researchers’. It will be led by Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, who is tasked with finding out “why bureaucracy has increased across the UK’s research system”. He will not have far to look when considering the serious amount of time his university and others will be wasting on yet another round of the Research Excellence Framework or REF21. This has channelled considerable effort away from the main mission of researchers for far too long. Its effects have also diverted many academics in the research-intensive universities from teaching and supporting students (see TEFS 29th June 2018 ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’). Dominic Cummings might agree that by seeing success in REF as the only goal in research, there is less chance of meaningful innovation and progress. The ‘Terms of Reference’ of the review offer scope for removing REF and its pernicious influence from the research landscape. In order to “Support the wider UK research system to work more productively” it must “Identify effective funding models, processes and infrastructure, whether existing or new, that will support the UK research environment to be more dynamic, diverse and transparent”. Starting with REF would have a profound impact. Then again, I suspect the universities benefitting most financially will want to keep to the status quo.

Original post.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee quizzed Dominic Cummings this week about the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). The hearing itself was an acknowledgement of his central role in its genesis. Cummings answered at length about how science should be organised in the UK with the confidence of someone unencumbered by any actual experience in science.  In advocating change, he effectively sets out to burn the longstanding ‘Haldane Principle’. The science agenda that ARIA pursues could be clouded in secrecy and the ideas of Cummings on genetic screening could form part of that. There are clear dangers of an unaccountable research agenda running out of control.

Cummings’ demeanour was one of Camus-like distain for the absurd situation. Cummings (Ancient and Modern History graduate) was questioned by the chair, Greg Clarkson (Economics graduate) and a committee largely not from science backgrounds. Later they were to question the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng (History graduate), and his Director General for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, Jo Shanmugalingam (Modern History graduate). Although well outnumbered, there were thankfully two with a science education present who held the fort for science, Carole Monaghan (Physics graduate) and Graham Stringer (Chemistry graduate). The absurd irony of the situation would not have escaped them. The result is that the vital links between research, careers, teaching and equal opportunity for all were missing. In a tense atmosphere of inevitable cuts to funding, it will be the careers of the least advantaged that will be hit hardest. Eliminating disadvantage and getting the best people into science should be first on the priority list.

The main headline from the Cummings interview by the Science and Technology Committee (A new UK research funding agency) was his glib comment that a year ago the Department of Health was a “smoking ruin” in terms of its capability and reaction to the pandemic. This appears in his mind to be justification for direct control of government funded science from No10. Could COVID have left a smoking ruin in terms of science policy from which a new order in the likeness of Cummings will emerge? It seems so and he may have already done much damage with little accountability to the electorate. However, Cummings may be a spent force with his ideas becoming even more absurd over time. Unlike the ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Albert Camus, Cummings seems to be in the absurd position of having acquired a rock but no longer has access to a mountain to roll it up.

The context of cuts to research funding.

The hearing with Cummings took place in an atmosphere of impending public funding cuts across the board. TEFS predicted there would be likely problems in expanding research funding back in December 2020 (TEFS 31st December 2020 ‘TEFS Review of the Year 2020’) with “Our links with the EU are also now tied down by EU decisions in terms of research direction. The UK will continue into the new Horizon Europe programme and contribute. But it puts into question the extent of additional research funding in the UK balanced with the commitment to the EU programmes”.

As sure as night follows day, the problem now resides in the Treasury who are seeking to fund the UK’s contribution to Horizon Europe from existing research budgets. With major cuts in research funds for overseas development, the president of Universities UK, Julia Buckingham, was compelled to write to the Prime Minister on Tuesday stating “However, we are increasingly alarmed by reports that the Treasury has not made funding available to support the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. If this position is maintained, and if BEIS is required to fund the costs of participation out of the existing science budget, it will amount to an effective cut of something in excess of £1bn”.

It seems the government’s blustering messages about the UK becoming “a global Science and Technology and responsible cyber power” in its ‘Integrated Review’, also out on Tuesday, are falling on deaf ears in the Treasury and elsewhere.

The hearing and funding cuts.

Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, pulled few punches about how the treasury is seeking to make radical cuts to science funding. In quizzing Cummings about this, she revealed her clear understanding of projected cuts. Cummings feigned any knowledge of this with “I did not watch the Budget and I do not have any idea what was in it”. But earlier, in answering a question from the chair, he said, “As far as I can see from the Budget, the plan is to stick to the doubling of the science budget, although there are some issues around that”. Either way, he will have been very dismayed that things were working out this way. It seems a harsh reality was colliding with his absurd and chaotic ambitions.

The following clips give some sense of the proceedings on finance, decision making and cronyism.
The whole session video is here and transcript here.

The impact on equality and careers.

Cuts to research budgets are most likely to hit the careers of young scientists very hard and fast. Last year, TEFS bemoaned the middle class nature of research as a career with ‘Is post-graduate research a ‘middle-class’ sport?’ (20th November 2020). The so-called career pathway is highly competitive and very precarious. It starts with PhD position and proceeds with a string of temporary contracts as a Post-Doctoral researcher. Many end up teaching on short term contracts that look very like zero hours based. There is no real structure to career progression in the system. Those with few advantages or family support find this too daunting and leave. Yet the government assumes there will be a ready supply of PhD graduates to fuel their science ambitions despite cuts to the budgets. The danger is that talented students will leave science and the first out the door will be the ones with fewer resources backing them.

The main source of funds for them is UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and they provide a lifeline for those entering the profession. But it is obvious to anyone working in the system that better funded PhD positions, dovetailed with a more defined career structure, is needed. Diverting finds from UKRI for Horizon Europe and ARIA would mean a cut in such support. UKRI may be left with a critical dilemma of balancing their PhD training support with their ongoing core research funding. But then it may be that the government sees the ARIA model as the future for all research and UKRI is relegated to its training function only. Time will tell of such a hidden agenda exists.

Forging a new science future: the need for an integrated policy.

The title is paraphrased from the often misquoted ‘white heat of technology’ speech about Labour’s Plan for Science by Harold Wilson to the Labour Party Conference in October 1963. A labour administration was propelled into power in 1964 under Wilson’s leadership. This heralded a major expansion of higher education at huge cost. It was badly needed if the UK was to compete internationally.

Sadly, the wide-angle vision of that era is missing in current government policy. The government may have a ‘masterplan’ but it is not apparent to any observer at this point.

What Wilson described was a “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution”. He was speaking in the context of a science and technology revolution in a detailed promise of great change. The plan was expansive, covering technological change, access to university education, work practices and challenging the old establishment (see ‘Leadership and Change: Prime Ministers in the Post-War World - Harold Wilson’ 2016). A similar wide and better-informed appreciation of the challenges is badly needed at this time. It must ‘weld’ education and opportunity for those of talent, regardless of background, to research and technology developments that are clearly understood by those in power. Instead, the Cummings vision, that might also reflect government thinking, appears ill informed, chaotic, and lacking in understanding of how science works.

What is ARIA.

The idea of a high-risk science agency in the UK similar to past initiatives such as DARPA in the USA was spawned by Cummings some time ago. The Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) was announced in February as a new agency that “will be led by scientists who will have the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed”. A draft ‘Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill’ was issued on the 2nd of March 2021 and is due a second reading next week on 23rd March 2021.

More details were released today in a policy statement and more detailed ‘explanatory notes’ that seem to have Cummings’ fingerprints all over them.

The house of Commons Library has published a very useful Research Briefing ’Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill 2019-21’ earlier today.

Going back to the budget of March 2020, it is intended that ARIA will be backed by £800 million of government funding up to 2024/5. However, despite a target to get it running in 2020, the timing and scale of the initiative may change.

The idea is for a ‘programme manager’ led initiative that is exempt from public procurement regulations. The mind boggles when thinking about the wild-west of  PPE procurement arrangements last year.

Funding is envisaged to spread to a wider community than usual such as “those not usually seeking government grants. This includes companies looking for prestige, or the large community of ‘casual coders’ who have talent and time, but little knowledge of the administration side of grant applications”. There is also little doubt that it will be “an independent body, outside UKRI”.

How it will be resourced remains an open question. The suspicion is there may be no extra funding and it will be resourced from the current UKRI Budget.

TUPE and freedom of information.

A strong hint that UKRI resources will be redeployed hides in the draft bill that specifically mentions the use of employment regulations under TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations). This mechanism is used when workers are transferred to new contracts. Existing staff in UKRI will be fearful of reduced terms in ARIA contracts.

Access to information about what ARIA does also seems to in question. The wording in the bill hints at restricted access. Analysis by the organisation WONKHE was less reticent and interpreted this as “ARIA is also not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, though we don’t get a justification for this decision”. Indeed, closer inspection of the draft bill confirms ARIA will not take the form of a public authority and, by default, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information2000 Act.

The concerns about ‘cronyism’ voiced by Science and Technology Committee member, Carol Monaghan, in the clip of the hearing above could be well founded.

Burning Haldane and extreme freedom: The Cummings vision of science and ARIA.

It seems Cummings thinks that ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ has had its day. In his world, accountability to the taxpayer citizen is not necessary. Instead, unelected political appointees not only call the tune, but they also get to sing the aria too. Indeed, it seems he may also see himself has the best person to do this.

The Haldane Principle has dominated science funding decisions in the UK since 1918 and is set out in the ‘Higher Education and Research Act 2017’. This reinforced the long-standing idea that scientists make decisions on research direction and not the politicians or indeed their advisors.

The danger is that ARIA is a pilot study and eventually all high-level funding for science becomes controlled at the centre of government and by government advisors (see TEFS 14th February 2020 ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? New University and Science Minster(s)’).

On this matter, the hearing revealed inconsistencies in his argument. On the one hand he insists that ARIA is run by one director and only four trustees and “you would not have Ministers anywhere near making decisions about how it spends money”. But then insists that “I have been arguing for 10 years that science and technology should be seen as a core part of what the Prime Minister’s job is”. I suspect that, without checks and balances, the ‘Director’ would not last long by going against the Prime Minister’s wishes.

Cummings also rails against bureaucracy that destroys initiative and complains that “the system runs the people”. To him there are “too many restrictions” and “The decisions are all made by peer review committees. This forces decisions very much to conservative, cautious incremental ideas”. As someone who has served on Research Council Committees on many occasions, this is simply not correct. Sometimes it seemed that we were not conservative enough in funding incremental science advances vital to longer term outcomes.

Cummings is not distracted by such notions and reminds us that “It is also crucial to remember that the basic principle of extreme freedom is completely hostile and completely the opposite of how all normal science funding works, and how all normal Whitehall works”. This seems to be straight out of an anarchists handbook and it will all end in tears.

Cummings was also very keen to refer to his ideas on leadership and government in a blog posting from June 2019. ‘High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’. This is an extensive ‘diatribe’ against the established order. Using pictures, he also obsesses about the arrangement of rooms and furniture used by those in power. It is profoundly disturbing but might explain the recent makeover at No10. The distain for those working for the government is alarming and should be challenged more. Here are some examples that are oozing with arrogance:

“I know from my days working on education reform in government that it’s almost impossible to exaggerate how little those who work on education policy think about how to improve learning”.

“But one of the most fundamental and striking aspects of government is that practically nobody involved in it has the faintest interest in or knowledge of how to create high performance teams to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity. This blindness is connected to another fundamental fact: critical institutions (including the senior civil service and the parties) are programmed to fight to stay dysfunctional, they fight to stay closed and avoid learning about high performance, they fight to exclude the most able people”.

The Cummings science agenda.

Of course, Cummings has his own science agenda that may well be served by an organisation such as ARIA. TEFS reported concerns about the implications back on the 20th of January 2020 with ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’. The arguments are detailed, but the dangers are simple.

The main danger lies in his ideas to genetically screen the population to predict outcomes. Encouraged by reading popular science texts, he is not deterred by the idea of predicting the likely intelligence of individuals from such screening. This leads to crucial statements he made in a blog posting from February 2019 ‘Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world’. He concluded that a person’s genetic makeup is the main driver of success and most interventions would not work, such as providing disadvantaged children with books. He dismisses the argument that “Kids who can read well come from homes with lots of books so let’s give families with kids struggling to read more books” and replaces it with the “truth” that “children and parents share genes that make them good at and enjoy reading, so causation is operating completely differently to the assumptions”.

The result is a call for “free universal ‘SNP’ (single nucleotide polymorphism) genetic sequencing” for everyone and a polygenic score can then be calculated for various traits including intelligence. The logical outcome would be the use of genetic testing to determine what individuals might receive in terms of health care, social services, and education.

With ARIA planned to be up and running in 2022, these ideas no longer seem far off. Substantial funding for research controlled by a single Director, appointed by the PM in No10 and who is not accountable and shrouded in secrecy, could impact on the social advancement of generations to come. ARIA may turn out to be a massive mistake.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.


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