Lightweight decisions on weighty matters

Micro-gravity may not cure cancer but failing to fund its research without balanced consideration is dangerous, says Fiona Harvey

If you stopped someone in the street today and asked them whether they thought micro-gravity research should continue to receive government funding, chances are they’d look at you rather strangely.

If you persevered they might ask you what has micro-gravity research ever done for us, or why should gravity get more money than hospitals? If you asked how much of their tax bill they’d be willing to spend on it you’d be lucky to get some small change.

Esoteric scientific research is never going to be a vote winner. Most people will live their entire lives quite happily without ever knowing what micro-gravity is, never mind caring whether a bunch of boffins are playing about with it in a lab somewhere.

So when governments face decisions on the funding of these arcane areas of knowledge and innovation they know they’re on safe ground. They know they are dealing with a tiny constituency of people who involve themselves in such obscure areas of research. That makes decisions easy. Cut the research and you raise an outcry from a handful of academics.

And it’s not hard to see why ministers should feel indifferent to the future of micro-gravity research. Micro-gravity will not cure cancer. It will not feed the world. The government officials involved in advising on whether or not to continue funding need not even put a very detailed case as the decision-makers are likely to spend more time wondering what to have for lunch than pondering the future of micro-gravity.

The way in which the decision is being taken on whether to continue with micro-gravity research highlights the lack of proper procedures for reviewing the future of research, and the lack of transparency in the decision-making process. In cases where funding may be discontinued rigorous methods should always be applied, but senior researchers have told The Engineer that the questions asked in this case were facile.

It’s hard not to wonder if decisions are being made on the basis of whether research is trendy rather than whether it is likely to yield solid aid to industry. Micro-gravity lacks sex appeal, but among other benefits it can be used to investigate improved steel production. Given the very public problems of Corus, surely now might be a good time to think about the future of the steel industry? Or perhaps the government has already given up on steel too.

One question that should be answered is why the European Space Agency is now demanding £21m a year for the use of its equipment. How did ESA arrive at this sum? Are other countries being forced to pay similar fees? Is there a chance to negotiate these fees? Has anyone tried?

It is hard not to conclude that the DTI’s positive decision on micro-gravity has been hijacked by academic infighting in other areas of government. That’s what is most disturbing about this episode. The DTI’s brief is to consider the future of industry in the UK. Their review of ongoing research takes into account the likely consequences, good and bad, of funding decisions on the UK’s industrial and commercial health.

Their decision was that continued research would benefit industry. But it looks as if the research councils, with an opposing view of micro-gravity research, will win the day.

This is wrong. The research councils should simply not be allowed to veto decisions taken on that basis. For a start they are at a further remove from industry than the DTI, so they are less qualified to judge the business impact. In addition, their methods for reviewing research seem much less transparent than the DTI, and much less rigorous.

Prof Richard Holdaway of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory has told The Engineer magazine that the research councils do not see micro-gravity as a priority for funding because ‘there is not a community of researchers – they are a disparate group of scientists from different research councils’. But that suggests researchers have to be located in one place, or joined round a single standard, to have their voices heard.

This is also wrong given the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of scientific research. Most scientists rejoice in the opportunity for broader-based research afforded by better information sharing and new communications networks. It would be ironic if the trend for broader-based research were to militate against researchers in their quest for funding.

Micro-gravity may not immediately grab the attention, but the shady methods of decision making taken towards scientific research should be of concern to the engineering community. World-class scientific R&D forms one of the few remaining pillars holding up the UK’s industrial base – and at a time when a worldwide downturn is depressing margins and sending firms fleeing to countries with a lower cost base, the UK needs all the help it can get. We erode our R&D expertise at our peril.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times