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It’s the Treasury’s season, but its dominance may not last forever

05 Oct 2015

David Walker, Head of Policy for the Academy of Social Sciences, says economic prosperity and science investment go together

Perhaps Lord Bob Kerslake’s critical examination of the Treasury will lead to that department losing its power and preponderance – and making spending reviews like the exercise being conducted this autumn things of the past.

Kerslake is former head of the civil service and a widely admired chief executive of the city of Sheffield. He understands government’s need for knowledge and research; he is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and his review will draw on empirical work on Whitehall and financial an economic policymaking.

But Kerslake’s review has been commissioned by Labour, which is a long way from power. Treasury mandarins, not renowned for their self-awareness or their humility, may not fear Kerslake’s recommendations. And yet oppositions can affect the climate. The role and capacity of the Treasury, including its understanding of science, research and investment, have long been under scrutiny and Kerslake will have no truck with the dogma that says because public spending has to be subject to a control regime that means buying the short-termism and sterility that so often characterises Treasury judgements.

However, change in Treasury chambers is some way off. For the time being we have to obey its edicts and live with its cramped understanding of research. That means all eyes on the November spending review – and its consequences for research council budgets and higher education as well, of course, as for the broader picture of knowledge commissioned and collected by government. Social science research includes the work of such agencies as the Office of National Statistics and evidence and analysis commissioned by departments, as well as the devolved administrations and local government.

Making the Argument

In its pre-election report, The Business of People, the Campaign for Social Science joined CaSE in making the basic point that economic prosperity and science investment go together, causality going in both directions.

We endorse the catholic definition of science given by Sir Mark Walport. Nuances in our argument will be different, along with the examples we give. Social science also, hopefully, brings a subtle understanding of how policy is made and the interplay between politics, policy and expertise. But we stand together on the basic point, social scientists with engineers, with the life and physical sciences – the CfSS together with CaSE — in reminding ministers that UK comparative advantage rests on generating then mobilising ‘disciplined knowledge’. There are clear implications from that for spending priorities.

Observers of the negotiations between spending departments such as BIS and the Treasury pick up on George Osborne’s speeches and emerging profile as a contender to succeed David Cameron as prime minister; they note his emphasis on regional development outside London and – after his latest trip – the love affair with China. Science investment must play a part in Osborne calculations.

But a rhetorical commitment to science or even to headline ‘flat cash’ does not insulate the work of scientists from austerity. The word this autumn is that the devil will lie in the detail of the spending allocations, in the balance between revenue and capital and – critically – in the institutional set up. Put bluntly, more money for Innovate UK will mean less for the research councils, which themselves are ‘in play’, at least in today’s configuration.

Calling for Change

Much will depend on what civil servants can offer ministers by way of ‘cutting quangos’ without going through the complex business of legislation. And it is here that the community of science finds things hard. Neither the quality nor quantity of research depends on any given institutional set up; science need not suffer if boundaries between public bodies shifted or they ceased to exist in today’s form.

It’s here we need to stick together. Not in defending the status quo at all costs but in demanding justification for change – whether the recommendation comes from Sir Paul Nurse or a twenty-something consultants from McKinsey’s or off the back of a harried civil service principal’s envelope.

Social science has been here before. In the 1980s, under a Tory government, ministers intervened to try to abolish the Social Science Research Council. Their reasons were openly ideological: they didn’t like socio-economic inquiry. Now, ministers have a generic dislike of arm’s length bodies – and of public spending – which extends across the piece.

The question we must all ask, together, is about evidence. On what basis – on what modelling and analysis — does this or that set up of research organisations protect the necessary autonomy of science, while maintaining the necessary conversation between ministers and the public and the professionals of knowledge around themes and priorities.

Maybe BIS will produce convincing arguments. But maybe it will try to please the Treasury by appearing to be ‘radical’ and cut the research councils for symbolic reasons. At which point, we must say in chorus that institutional vandalism is bad government.

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