Basic research in the UK

The Guardian reports that a new government panel will henceforth judge what research is worthy of funding in the UK. Universities will have to make the case for their research projects in order to receive money. Reuters UK, perhaps keen to draw attention, blurt out that “‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees face [a] funding battle”.

Examples cited by Reuters UK include surf science, golf management and winemaking. I agree that these are probably vocational qualifications rather than fields meriting university study. But for blue skies projects in the natural sciences or the humanities, the payoff and effects on society are very hard to judge in advance. After all, we very often conduct the research precisely to evaluate these benefits.

The incentive situation with basic research is different today from what it was during the cold war era. When basic research was a national affair, not to be shared freely in the scientific community, it was probably possible to gain a national advantage by investing more in basic research. Today it’s all too easy to make the argument that other countries will reap the benefits, so why pay for the investment? Essentially a reverse prisoner’s dilemma: out of selfishness, you are tempted not to invest, but everybody benefits more if everybody invests. But surely this is too simple a view of the situation.

Where will countries that cut down on basic research be in the league tables of the future?

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