SFI boss Mark Ferguson recently made a statement to the effect that “every single scientist ought to be able to explain why they are spending citizens’ tax dollars.” I agree. But – and this is the key point – justifying expenditure on scientific research does not have to involve innovation, start-ups, new product development or job creation. Scientific research – and indeed all academic research – can be justified on the basis of its key role in education. We just haven’t been able to come up with an argument that convinces the decision-makers of this.
Research in the education sector is a bit like preventative medicine in the health sector. It doesn’t really provide any immediate or tangible output. There are very few hard numbers that researchers can provide to justify expenditure on research – other than perhaps through the key role that postgraduate students play in delivering undergraduate education. Likewise, in health, strategies for preventative medicine might make predictions about future savings in expenditure but policy-makers tend to employ very short-term thinking and potential savings are of little interest to people who think in terms of the current budget.
I was pondering these things the other day while having lunch. Sitting just behind me were two mathematicians – a lecturer and his PhD student, I think. They talked mathematics, almost breathlessly, for about 30 minutes, and even if I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, they held my attention the whole time. It occurred to me that their conversation could take place nowhere else but in a university. This was not two employees griping about their bosses or what they were going to do at the weekend; this was two people who were clearly in love with their subject and it was easy to see how the lecturer would be an inspiration to his undergraduate students.
I have no idea whether the mathematics they were discussing had any immediate ‘real-world application’ – whether it would fit into the ‘innovation’ culture of many modern universities – but it seemed to me that this conversation represented the essence of what a university should be. A university is a place where people learn and where they are inspired to achieve great things for society and humanity. And there is no better way of inspiring people than through research. But try explaining that to a politician who is only thinking about the next press release.