The Haldane principle: who should decide how to spend research funds?

The heated debate about who should decide how to spend research funds and what kind of research should be performed never ceases to be relevant. Is it the politicians, who don’t understand science but know how to rule a country, or is it researchers, who are dedicated to science but lack the broader view of a legislator, that have to decide which direction research should take?

In British research policy the answer seems very clear, apparently. UK, in fact, seems to strictly adhere to a principle, called the Haldane principle and named after Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), labour politician, lawyer and philosopher, that defines a clear separation between politics and research. According to the Haldane principle politicians should have no say in research matters and researchers should be completely free to choose how to spend their money and which course their research should undertake.

In December 2014 the UK government published a new Science and Innovation Strategy that  reaffirmed an adherence to the Haldane Principle. However, this document has generated a good amount of critiques, since it is formulated in such a way that made some people worry that an attempt was being made to redefine the principle, in order to allow more direct intervention in science funding decisions by politicians.

These concerns seemed to be confirmed by a recent interview to Greg Clark, UK minister for universities, science and cities, who declared that “science budget must be allocated very strictly according to Haldane (…) but that is not the only source of government funding that is available. Haldane must not be a prison that keeps scientific research budgets unable to access what might be substantial sums of money elsewhere”.

These controversial words have kept UK researchers wondering about their true meaning. Is it the beginning of a new era in which the government will claim the right to set strategic directions and priorities for spending science government funds? Only time will tell.

(Caterina Lucano)

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3 pensieri su “The Haldane principle: who should decide how to spend research funds?

  1. I think the article you linked from the Soft Machine blog is really interesting, especially in considering the Haldane Principle as an invented tradition. Stating that the government should not have a say in scientific research because “an authority said so” may cover the intention of scientists to maintain the status quo and not to engage a dialogue with society. Of course this engagement could result in a higher level of influence of the public on researchers, but I think that seeing this only as a limit to the freedom of research is misguided. Building a bond between scientists and the public could have an effect also the other way around, with scientists gaining a position of more trust and influence in society. And with influence come funds for research, that I guess would be interesting for scientists too.

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    1. Dear Anna, your comment is very interesting, and I agree with you on the fact that a bond between scientists and the public is not only desirable, but also necessary. Public engagement of science has indeed become a third party in the dialogue between scientists and politicians, and must not be underestimated. I personally believe that an equilibrium must be reached, in which scientists, the public and the government equally have a say on how to spend research funds, so that everything could be balanced between the different needs that are now present in our society.

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  2. About deciding research directions and priorities I don’t have a well-defined idea, the issue is more subtle and complex than it seems at first sight. I think that science is a kind of power, a power growing every day, and that’s because scientific research produces a powerful knowledge, able to drive deep changes at many different levels (social, economical, ethical, environmental). If this is correct, some kind of democratic control over it is necessary. However, we all know from history of science that research, by its nature, makes its greatest discoveries while trying to reach something else. So that you cannot decide where research has to go in order to obtain something, you can only wait, because things will happen in a way and thanks to a process that we simply cannot imagine or project. Scientific research is an anarchic kind of power. Maybe a solution is not to decide what to research, but control democratically which outcomes of research are admissible and useful and which are not.

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