Around the Science Policy World in 50 Minutes

5 March 2010


Professor Martin discusses what has been learned over the years about how research influences policy

Attendees at the CSaP's second Distinguished Lecture were taken briskly through 50 years of science policy research in 50 minutes as Professor Ben Martin, former Director of SPRU, led them on a whistle-stop tour of the twenty key "steps forward" that have been made in the field.

Drawing on 35 years of his own experience, he highlighted advances in the understanding of innovation, the economic rationale for intervention, the analogies with biological evolution, the role of networks in national systems of innovation, and the "triple helix" (the interaction of universities industry and government). Several times he returned to the debate between two linear models - the "science push" model (much favoured by scientists) and the "demand pull" model whereby changes in market demand call forth innovation.

He showed how studies of the roots of innovation have supported the "science push" model when very long time-scales (a century or more) are considered but have favoured "market pull" over shorter periods (20 years or less). He also highlighted the more recent recognition that the process is a non-linear "chain" at once complex dynamic and interactive.

Professor Martin also considered what has been learned over the years about how research influences policy - particularly from SPRU's ground-breaking work on research assessment and science indicators. Key lessons concerned the moral dilemmas confronting all science policy researchers who must strike a balance between rigorous objectivity and the need to engage with the practical political context. He recalled highlights such as Margaret Thatcher declaring "we'd better give them an extra £100 million" and a new Minister's readiness both to listen to - and then claim credit for - new ideas.

He also recalled setbacks such as the choice of subtitle for the first Foresight report Picking the Winners which pressed all the wrong buttons at the highest political levels. Product champions he argued are essential at the highest level but for them the work must often be condensed to two pages; just as important is working with the "Level 5" civil servants who do the hard work and preparing the ground for serendipity - "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity".

In his conclusions Professor Martin emphasised the complexity of the processes whereby science influences policy and stressed the need for perseverance: it's wrong to expect many "direct hits" but legitimate to look for evidence of "knowledge creep". The impact of science technology and innovation he argued is inherently difficult to measure. Attempting to capture the complexities in a multidimensional approach may be prohibitively costly and time consuming but equally simple practical measures create too many opportunities for academics to "game" the outcomes.

The lively discussion that ensued ranged across the role of the media in the GM debate; the recent climate science controversies; the differences between the UK model for research funding and other models; the risks of short-termism in decision-making; and whether it helps for policy-makers to have scientific backgrounds. Professor Martin observed how few do and how the best of them move around rapidly within the policy community; but he also argued strongly that people should move between sectors (industry government and academia) much more than is typically the case in the UK though it is more common elsewhere.

See the the CSaP website for a link to Professor Martin's slides and the video of his lecture and the Q&A.

(Banner image: Hot Air Balloons by Patrick Down)