Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


History of the Haldane Principle

138. The Haldane Principle is popularly used to describe the notion that "decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians".[119] It is supposedly derived from Lord Haldane's 1918 report on the machinery of Government (hereafter called the Haldane Report), which was written against the backdrop of the First World War. In relation to research funding, which had for several years being focused very strongly on the war effort, the key recommendation was to separate out departmental research from 'intelligence and research for general use'. The general research, it was proposed, should be carried out by 'Advisory Councils' (today's Research Councils), which would be overseen by a "Minister specifically appointed on the ground of his suitability to preside over a separate Department of Intelligence and Research, which would no longer act under a Committee of the Privy Council, and would take its place among the most important Departments of Government".[120]

139. Lord Haldane's recommendations were largely based on the practice of a Committee that impressed him: the Committee of the Privy Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.[121] Some of them sound familiar to us today; for example, that research proposals were presented to an Advisory Council, "consisting of a small number of eminent men of science".[122] However, some do not fit too neatly with today's interpretation; for example, that "all proposals for expenditure are referred for sanction" to the Minister.[123]

140. Although Lord Haldane was clearly supportive of a light touch approach from a Minister who was free of normal departmental duties,[124] nowhere in the report does he explicitly lay out a principle akin to the one bearing his name today. As Professor David Edgerton, from the Imperial College Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, put it: "There is no Haldane Principle and never has been".[125]

141. According to Professor Edgerton, what we now consider to be the Haldane Principle actually derives from the early 1960s when the then Rt Hon Quintin Hogg MP (later Lord Hailsham), who was concerned about the Labour Opposition's plans to increase the central control of research through the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, argued:

    Ever since 1915 it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a Government Department itself.[126]

142. In 1972, Lord Rothschild provided an alternative to the Haldane Principle, the customer-contractor principle. In his report A Framework for Government Research and Development, he stated "The concepts of scientific independence used in the Haldane Report are not relevant to contemporary discussion of government research".[127] Rothschild's principle made the Government Department or Government Chief Scientist the 'customer' who commissioned 'contractors', the Research Councils and Universities, to do research. This was a move away from investigator-led research on the grounds that:

    However distinguished, intelligent and practical scientists may be, they cannot decide what the needs of the nation are, and their priorities, as those responsible for ensuring those needs are met.[128]

143. The customer-contractor principle brought with it a "greater scrutiny of the activities of scientists, a need for scientists to justify more clearly their demands upon public resources, and a generally tougher financial environment".[129]

144. Government involvement in science research priorities continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee's report on Civil R&D,[130] the Government:

  • placed strategic priorities for research under the consideration of Ministers and the PM during the public expenditure round;
  • set up the Science and Technology Assessment Office within the Cabinet Office and established "clear objectives for expenditure and developed systematic criteria for assessing and managing research";[131] and
  • asked research bodies to consider the national benefits of their work, including the economic impact and commercial exploitation of their work.

145. In 1992, the science portfolio was moved to a Cabinet Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Office of Science and Technology (OST) was set up as a non-Ministerial department, headed by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. In addition to having responsibility for the UK's science budget, the OST was charged with developing the Government's science policy nationally and internationally.

146. In 1993, the OST White Paper Realising Our Potential declared that:

    […] day to day decisions for Research Councils on the scientific merits of different strategies and projects should be taken by the Research Councils without Government involvement. There is, however, a preceding level of broad priority setting between general classes of activity where a range of criteria must be brought to bear.[132]

147. This was a modern rendition of the Haldane Principle in all but name.

The Haldane Principle today

148. The then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills put his mark on the Haldane Principle in April 2008:

    For many years, the British government has been guided by the Haldane principle—that detailed decisions on how research money is spent are for the science community to make through the research councils.

    Our basis for funding research is also enshrined in the Science and Technology Act of 1965, which gives the Secretary of State power to direct the research councils—and, in practice, respects the spirit of the Haldane principle.

    In practice, of course, Haldane has been interpreted to a greater or lesser extent over the years, not least when Ted Heath transferred a quarter of research council funding to government departments—a move undone by Margaret Thatcher.

    But in the 21st century, I think three fundamental elements remain entirely valid.

—  That researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities.

—  That the government's role is to set the over-arching strategy; and

—  That the research councils are 'guardians of the independence of science'.[133]

149. We will briefly discuss each of these threads.


150. We received many submissions in support of this concept. Professor Lord Krebs reminded us that key advances are often heavily dependent on basic science that has nothing to do with the innovation in question.[134] He used the example of cardiovascular medicine, but one could similarly use MRI scanning:

    [T]he use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging in diagnostics was a product of decades of fundamental physics and chemistry research into the properties of atomic nuclei.[135]

151. Or penicillin,[136] or Teflon,[137] or superconductivity,[138] and so on.[139] As the British Academy put it: "Applied research relies on the foundations that have been developed by basic research."[140] The University of Oxford similarly commented:

    The fundamental character of research is evolutionary. That is, ideas are generated, explored and categorised. Some turn out to be fruitful but many don't. This means that a sufficiently broad research base is needed both to generate the ideas and to recognise and exploit them. In most cases these two functions are not coterminal and do not arise from the same persons or groups. Therefore there is an inherent danger in 'focusing' that risks the functioning of the enterprise as a whole.[141]


152. The issue of whether the Government should set the over-arching strategy is similarly simple to support. The Government provides the money; it seems only reasonable that is should be able to set broad themes for areas of research. Professor Lord Krebs, who is strongly opposed to a prescriptive role for Government in research decisions, nonetheless commented:

    [I]t is not that I am totally against having key themes—indeed, when I was chief executive of NERC we did have certain key themes broadly defined and the research councils have that mechanism today—but I do think that the key themes and the priorities should be presented in a broad way so that the scientists can be innovative within those themes and not be too prescriptive.[142]

153. Rather, the difficulty is defining the relationship between an 'over-arching strategy' and 'detailed decisions'. If one views the research that is funded by the Research Councils as static there is no obvious conflict: the Government suggests topics that it considers important and the Research Councils fund research in those areas through open competition. However, matters are complicated when the funding regime changes: the Government changes the priority of a strategic area of research and the Research Councils stop funding research in one area and start funding it in another. In this situation it is clear how the over-arching strategy at a given point in time can have a discrete and predictable impact on detailed funding decisions.

154. The most recent example of this took place in the 2009 Budget, which provided that the Research Councils were to make £224 million of savings[143] "by reducing administration costs" and—this is the key point—"refocusing spend on new research priorities".[144] Although the Government has said that the Research Councils will decide how the money will be spent, the rules about how the money can be spent have been set by Treasury. In this case, the Treasury has allowed "refocusing spend on new research priorities" to count as value for money savings.[145] In other words, when old grants run out in low-priority areas and they are replaced by grants in high-priority areas, that counts as a saving. This funding rule means that Research Councils must concentrate more of their funding into specific research areas, which are known in advance by Government.

155. The 2009 Budget Research Council savings have had an impact on the way that Research Councils allocate their funds. While this cannot be regarded as dictating 'detailed decisions', it is not 'over-arching strategy' either; it is somewhere in between.

156. We have another problem with this decision. It was announced that the Research Councils are the only Government bodies to have their value for money savings reinvested internally.[146] This is hardly surprising given that much of these 'savings' are in fact a cost neutral refocusing of the budget; the 'savings' have not freed up any cash that could be spent elsewhere. These 'savings' are in reality a strategic influencing of research funding streams. Whether or not it is the right thing to do is open to debate. But, either way, the Government should communicate clearly what it is doing and not label them as something they are not.

157. To conclude, we are in favour of the idea that researchers are best placed to make detailed funding decisions on the one hand and, in principle, we support the Government to set the over-arching strategic direction on the other. However, it is necessary for the Government to spell out the relationship between these two notions for a broader funding principle to be of any use.


158. We were surprised to see this being said at all, let alone as part of the Haldane Principle. As Professor Edgerton put it:

    I do not think anyone has ever thought of the research councils as the defenders of the independence of science—that is a very odd definition indeed and I hope we have not actually got that. Learned societies, universities and individual academics are the custodians of the independence of science.[147]

159. Research Councils are not, and never have been, the 'guardians of the independence of science'. That responsibility has historically lain, and should remain, with the learned societies, universities and individual academics.

Science Budget Allocation letters

160. During our inquiry on the CSR07 Science Budget Allocations we encountered concern over the level of control that the Government exercised over the research budget.[148] To clarify the issue, we asked to see the letters that the Government sent to each of the Research Councils laying out the details of their allocations.

161. The fact that the letters are not published causes us concern on two counts. First, there is the principle of transparency. The basis for decisions on how public money is spent is the public's business; and these are not small sums of money: many billions of pounds will be handed over to the Research Councils in the coming years.

162. Second, the letters should throw some light on how much control the Government had over how the Research Councils were to spend the money they were given. The allocation letters to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) are published as a matter of course, and although Professor Adrian Smith, Director General of Science and Research, told us that the equivalent to the HEFCE and LSC letters would be the Allocations Booklet, which is published,[149] Nick Dusic, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, told us that "the science budget allocation booklet gives us the high-level commitments for the different research councils [… but] not the rationale".[150]

163. Freedom of Information requests to see the allocation letters from the Campaign for Science and Engineering and us were turned down. We then asked the Government to see the letters in confidence, but we were refused again. Most recently, we asked the then Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Rt Hon John Denham MP, why he was refusing to hand over the letters:

    Chairman: We accept that you are not going to publish [the science budget allocation letters], but the reason we want to see them is that there is a suggestion that the Government is taking an overly prescriptive role in determining the way the Research Councils spend their money. Given the fact that the Osmotherly Rules state, July 2005, that the Government is committed to being as open and as helpful as possible with select committees and that, indeed, during your time as a select committee chairman you received from Charles Clarke, the then Home Secretary, papers which were very sensitive but were relevant to a committee inquiry, could you give us an explanation as to why you are digging your heels in and not allowing the committee to have those on a confidential, not to publish, basis, and will you reconsider?

    Mr Denham: Chairman, I would never refuse a request from you to reconsider, so I promise you I will go away and look at it again. The view that I have taken up to now is that it does raise a precedent for the release of papers which were intended to be confidential which I am concerned about. I would say two things. I will go and consider it again, because you have raised it with me quite fairly. I would also say to you, Chairman, this may come as a surprise to my officials, but as we look forward to the next allocation process, which we have already discussed with you as to ways in which we can make that more consultative, perhaps we can find a way which avoids this situation happening again.[151]

164. We are sorry to report that we still have not seen these letters.

165. The Government's refusal to give us confidential access to papers relevant to this inquiry is unacceptable. Without seeing the Science Budget Allocation letters, we are forced to speculate that the Government has exerted inappropriate influence over the Research Councils. However, we have been unable to confirm or deny this suspicion because of the Government's contempt for Parliamentary scrutiny.

Regional science policy

166. The Haldane Principle has a close associate called the Excellence Principle which stipulates that decisions about what science to fund should be made principally on the excellence of the science. To put it simply, the Excellence Principle guides the Research Councils in spending their research funds; the Haldane Principle guides the Government, encouraging it to leave the Research Councils free to apply the Excellence Principle.

167. The Government defines the Excellence Principle as follows:

    Public funding of research at a national level, through the Research Councils and funding bodies, is dedicated to supporting excellent research, irrespective of its UK location. The 'excellence principle' is fundamental to safeguarding the international standing and scientific credibility of UK science and research and supporting an excellent, diverse, expanding and dynamic science base, providing value for money for public investment.[152]

168. One potential difficulty with the Excellence Principle, as noted in the 10-year framework, is that it "results in geographical disparities in research funding".[153] It is easy to see why this might happen: once a critical mass of excellence is reached in a particular location, it attracts a high percentage of the available research funds and research in that area grows further. This presumably accounts in no small way to the large quantities of research funding that are won in the 'golden triangle' (London, Oxford and Cambridge), leaving an apparent lower level of funding in other parts of the UK. It is worth noting, however, that if one normalises the amount of funding won by each region by either population or the number of research institutes, the variance in regional funding is less extreme.[154]

169. On the face of it, the Excellence Principle is a good thing because it keeps science competitive and sends the money where it is most likely to produce the best results. However, there is a clash with another very important concept. The Government views science and innovation as key factors in economic development. This is a long-standing position that has been reaffirmed many times since the current economic crisis started.[155] When one combines the view that science and engineering are important for the economic health of a region, on the one hand, with Government's responsibility for the economic health of the region, on the other, one logically arrives at a policy whereby the Government makes strategic decisions regarding the economic health of regions by influencing where research money is spent.

170. To paraphrase: there is a fundamental clash between the Government's commitment to the Excellence Principle as currently stated on the one hand, and its responsibility for ensuring the economic health of the regions on the other. We explored this problem during our inquiry into the Science Budget Allocations and made the point that the Government was not being clear about how decisions are made about regional science funding.[156]

171. The Government responded by saying that it was "committed to excellent science and research, wherever this may be in the United Kingdom",[157] and argued that in order to maximise the role of research and innovation in economic performance in the regions, "regional and national bodies need to co-ordinate their funding and strategies".[158] The response does not include a list of regional and national bodies that need to work together. And the document to which the response points (Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014) only gives one example: the Science Research Investment Fund, which includes a capital stream "that can help universities improve their capacity to compete on the basis of excellence".[159] It is a good example of how Government can support both the Excellence Principle and encourage strategic science funding for the regions, but why did the Government not use it, or others—if there are any—in its response? It comes back to our original point, which was not that the Excellence Principle and the notion that science and engineering are important for the economic health of the regions are impossibly incompatible, but that the Government is not being clear about how it rationalises the two concepts.

172. Lord Drayson has already accepted that while excellence is the primary driver for decisions about funding major science facilities, there is a regional dimension too.[160] And according to the Regional Studies Association, it is a relatively simple fix:

    The Haldane principle is generally only applied to research in the research councils sector, and whilst there has been some shift towards politically determined programmes in selected areas the principle of academics deciding on the award of funds still holds. This principle need not be altered dramatically to achieve a rebalancing of research between regions as much of the emphasis needs to be placed on creating new centres and facilities outside of the research council remit.[161]

173. Logically, the Government cannot support both the Excellence and Haldane Principles in their current form and be responsible for promoting science and engineering as a means of economic recovery and growth in the regions. The time is ripe for an unambiguous rationalisation of the two concepts. Researchers, industry, regional and national policy makers and the public have a right to know on what basis research funding is distributed both nationally and regionally; the rationale for funding decisions should be transparent and rigorous. The Government should adjust the framework for research funding and regional development so that it does not contain internal contradictions.

174. An additional beneficiary of this recommendation would be the Government. During the Science Budget Allocations inquiry, the Government got itself in a muddle about whether or not it had a regional science policy:

    The Minister told us that "We want to develop Daresbury as a world-class centre for science and innovation", but went on to say that the Government does not want to "get to a situation where [we are] dictating to research councils that a certain percentage of their budget has to be spent in a certain region". However, the Minister has subsequently said that "individual delivery plans [of Research Councils] should be in accordance with the strategic priorities of the government, which includes a clear regional element, because we want to see Daresbury developed as a world-class centre for science and innovation".[162]

175. When we visited the USA, we learnt about a well established regional science policy called the Experimental Programme to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).[163] The programme's aim is to strengthen research and education in science and engineering and to avoid undue concentration. Most of the top research in the US is concentrated in facilities in states along the east and west coasts, and EPSCoR allocates resources to inland states that do not have top-level facilities. We were told that the programme was both long-standing and controversial, but that it was yielding results; for example, one inland state was on the point where it would soon graduate above the threshold for EPSCoR support.

176. Science and engineering are crucial to the economic wellbeing of every region in the UK, and development strategies that have supported and made use of science and engineering have proven successful. In the consideration of UK science policy, it is essential that the regional dimension is clearly and publicly set out. It is important that the Government is able to communicate its role in regional development and in science policy, and especially the relationship between the two. It will only be able to do this if it resolves the conflict between its regional policies and the Haldane Principle.

A multitude of funding relationships

177. So far we have identified two major problems with the Haldane Principle. The first is the false dichotomy of 'detailed decisions' made by the Research Councils on the one hand, and the 'over-arching strategy' set by Government on the other. The second is that the Haldane Principle (and its close relation the Excellence Principle) clashes with the Government's responsibility for ensuring that the regions have access to science and engineering excellence so that their economies can benefit.

178. There is a third problem. The Haldane Principle only applies, in practice, to the Research Councils. That is fine, as far as it goes, but the research landscape is far more complicated than just a binary relationship between Government and the Research Councils. There are also related institutions such as the Technology Strategy Board (ca £1 billion over CSR07) and the Energy Technologies Institute (ca £550 million over ten years), which are supported by a range of different funding streams. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (formerly DIUS) awards annual grants to three National Academies that fund research (the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Academy, at £247 million over CSR07). There are the Large Science Facilities Fund (£508 million over CSR07), University Research Capital Investment (£740 million from the science budget and £824 million from HEFCE over CSR07), the Higher Education Innovation Fund (£297 million from the science budget and £99 million from HEFCE), and the Public Sector Research Establishments Exploitation Fund (£37.5 million over CSR07), which in turn funds a number of Research Council Institutes, cultural institutions, NHS regions and departmental research bodies.[164] And that is just DIUS (as it was).

179. Several other departments have research budgets, including the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health, and Defra, and there is also a regional dimension to funding:

    There is a strong case for expanding on the Haldane Principle in light of the money and authority now held by the devolved governments and the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). It is almost universally embraced that university research funding should be driven by the quality of the science and coordinated through the research councils. However, we believe that there is currently a question mark over the effectiveness of the Haldane Principle in insulating this funding from government directions, and particularly the role of the RDAs in this area.[165]

180. We have created four broad-brush maps that go some way towards demonstrating the multifaceted relationship between Government and all the research that it funds. It does so through a multitude of organisations. It would be inappropriate for the same relationship to exist between each of these organisations and Government.

181. The relationships between the Government and the research bodies that it funds should be both explicit and transparent. We recommend that the different streams of research funding are mapped and the nature of the contract between Government and the research bodies described.

119   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haldane_principle Back

120   Ministry of Reconstruction, Report of Machinery of Government Committee, December 1918, Cd 9230, p 35 Back

121   Ministry of Reconstruction, Report of Machinery of Government Committee, December 1918, Cd 9230, p 34 Back

122   Ministry of Reconstruction, Report of Machinery of Government Committee, December 1918, Cd 9230, p 30 Back

123   Ministry of Reconstruction, Report of Machinery of Government Committee, December 1918, Cd 9230, p 30 Back

124   That is "immune from any suspicion of being biased by administrative considerations against the application of the results of research", Ministry of Reconstruction, Report of Machinery of Government Committee, December 1918, Cd 9230, p 34 Back

125   Q 168 Back

126   HC Deb, 9 December 1964, vol 703 cols 1553-1686 Back

127   Cabinet Office, A framework for Government Research and Development, November 1971, para 54 Back

128   Cabinet Office, A framework for Government Research and Development, November 1971, para 8 Back

129   Memorandum to the BSE Inquiry by the Office of Science and Technology, para 6
www.bseinquiry.gov.uk/files/db/do01/tab01.pdf Back

130   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, 3rd Report of Session 1988-89, Civil R&D, HL 24 Back

131   Memorandum to the BSE Inquiry by the Office of Science and Technology, para 15
www.bseinquiry.gov.uk/files/db/do01/tab01.pdf Back

132   Department of Trade and Industry, Realising Our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, May 1993, Cm 2250 Back

133   Speech given at Royal Academy of Engineering on 29 April 2008: www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/john_denham/science_funding Back

134   Qq 40-41 Back

135   Ev 258 Back

136   Ligon B, 'Penicillin: its discovery and early development', Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Diseases, vol 15 (2004), pp 52-57 Back

137   Anne Cooper Funderburg, 'Making Teflon stick', Invention & Technology (American Heritage), Summer 2000 Back

138   Kantorovich A & Ne'eman Y, 'Serendipity as a source of evolutionary progress in science', Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol 20 (1989), pp 505-530 Back

139   For a long list of serendipitous discoveries, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity Back

140   Ev 240 Back

141   Ev 251 Back

142   Q 41 Back

143   £118 million of savings were agreed in CSR07. £106 million of savings were announced in the Budget. Back

144   HM Treasury, Budget 2009, April 2009, p 130 Back

145   HM Treasury, Budget 2009, April 2009, p 130 Back

146   'State demands £106 million research refocus', Times Higher Education, 30 April 2009 Back

147   Q 170 Back

148   IUSS Committee, Science Budget Allocations, pp 12-14 Back

149   Q 183 Back

150   Qq 193-195 Back

151   Oral evidence taken on 20 May 2009, HC (2008-09) 530-ii, Q 283 Back

152   HMT, DTI and DfES, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014, July 2004, p 146 Back

153   HMT, DTI and DfES, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014, July 2004, p 147 Back

154   Ev 284 Back

155   Lord Drayson: www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/lord_drayson/fst;
John Denham MP: www.dius.gov.uk/news_and_speeches/speeches/john_denham/science_funding;
Lord Mandelson: www.berr.gov.uk/aboutus/ministerialteam/Speeches/page51775.html; and
Prime Minister: oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 12 February 2009, HC (2008-09) 257-i, Q 46 Back

156   IUSS Committee, Science Budget Allocations, para 77 Back

157   IUSS Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2007-08, Science Budget Allocations: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 639, para 71 Back

158   IUSS Committee, Science Budget Allocations: Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, para 72 Back

159   HM Treasury, Department of Trade and Industry and Department for Education and Skills, Science and innovation investment framework 2004-2014, July 2004, p 147 Back

160   Qq 33-34 Back

161   Ev 181 Back

162   IUSS Committee, Science Budget Allocations, para 75 Back

163   www.nsf.gov/od/oia/programs/epscor/about.jsp Back

164   See The Allocations of the Science Budget 2008/09 to 2010/11, DIUS, December 2007, for the full science budget figures. Back

165   Ev 111 (Institute of Physics) Back

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