How does science drive the economy? What are the origins of the creative sector, and how should it be governed? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, David Edgerton (King’s College London) sits down with Terence Kealey (University of Buckingham) to discuss the counterintuitive role science plays, and should play, in society.

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The Guest

Terence Kealey is a professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, where he served as vice chancellor until 2014. As a clinical biochemist Dr. Kealey studied human experimental dermatology. He published around 45 original peer-reviewed papers and around 35 scientific reviews, also peer-reviewed. In 1996 he published his first book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, where he argued that, contrary to the conventional wisdom,  governments need not fund science. His second book, Sex, Science and Profits (2008) argues that science is not a public good but, rather, is organized in invisible colleges, thereby making government funding irrelevant. Professor Kealey trained initially in medicine at Bart’s Hospital Medical School, London. He studied for his doctorate at Oxford University, where he worked first as a Medical Research Council Training Fellow and then as a Wellcome Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science.

David Edgerton  is the Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London. He graduated from St John’s College Oxford and Imperial College London. After teaching at the University of Manchester he became the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London (1993-2003) where he was also Hans Rausing Professor. He joined the History department with the Centre on its transfer to King’s in August 2013. He was a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellow, 2006-2009, and gave the 2009 Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Prize Lecture at the  Royal Society.

Skip Ahead

1:00: Terence, you and I have known each other for many years. You started off as a scientist, as I did, indeed, and we’ve both found our way to thinking about the place of science in society and in the economy. How did you start on this path?

3:53: Where did you develop your thoughts about science funding? It’s very unusual for a scientist to be writing about the economics of science at all, especially from the positions you were taking. Where did you find the space to articulate your criticisms?

6:48: I imagine you were politically engaged in some way at this time. What were you reading outside science, what positions were you taking in this rather strained political atmosphere of the 1980s?

8:52: In the 1980s, you’re pointing out that the university labs are getting fuller and fuller. Now I assume that most of the money that paid for all those new researchers was government money. Your argument, as it developed over the years, was that governments need not fund research in universities or elsewhere. So you were effectively saying that the Thatcher governments were spending too much on scientific research.

10:51: But the great bulk of the money going into universities from the so-called private sector is surely charitable money from the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research and so on, and highly focused on the biomedical sector.

11:44: Now the Thatcher governments presented themselves as wanting to reverse the British decline, and many of the people arguing for more investment in research argued that the British decline since the 1870s was caused by a lack of investment in research. So you might imagine that the Thatcher governments would in fact launch a program of such investments, and it’s interesting today to see the Brexiters today including Dominic Cummings talking about increasing funding for research… Why weren’t the Thatcher governments pursuing that policy of investment?

15:13: So you don’t see her [Thatcher] as following through on the liberal arguments from Gladstone onwards.

15:57: Terence, let me put this to you: in 1979, the British R&D – GDP ratio was higher than it was in 1990, when Margaret Thatcher left office. That’s to say, essentially the private sector, dominating overall R&D funding, was spending less on research as a portion of GDP at the end of the Thatcher period. That doesn’t seem to square with your crowding out thesis.

18:30: One could argue that the effectiveness of R&D productivity has declined since the 1970s– obviously that is the case in pharmaceuticals; perhaps it’s the case more generally.

21:41: I’d like to go back just a little bit to an issue that we both addressed in the 80s and early 90s, which is pertinent here. That is the relationship between national investments in R&D and national rates of economic growth. We both put forward the argument that there was no positive correlation between these numbers. And I think I recall correctly that experts in science policy and scientists were incredulous and thought that we’d lost a few marbles along the way. How did you come to this conclusion?

24:28: If you look at the industrially funded British R&D, it was relatively high into the late 1960s and the rates of British economic growth were low, and this wasn’t because the British were bad at exploiting the research; I think that even there we had an element of an inverse correlation between national growth rates and national privately funded civil R&D.

26:49: One very striking conclusion you report in your first book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, is that the higher the GDP per capita of a country, the higher the R&D – GDP ratio. That’s important because the richer the country is, the lower the rate of economic growth.

29:52: If one were to put in the phrase ‘economics of science’ into google scholar, very quickly we’d be taken back to some foundation work in the late 50s and early 60s which treated science as a public good, and out of that a whole series of arguments about the need for the state to fund science.

38:37: So what you’re saying is that that model of economics of science in the late 50s and early 60s which suggests that science is a public good misunderstands that science cannot be a public good in the same way that the light from a lighthouse is a public good… We can’t all read a scientific paper and understand what it’s about.

44:15: One of the new features of our public life is the centrality of a certain discourse about innovation and creativity; we’re all supposed to be innovative and entrepreneurial. There’s not a CV that doesn’t claim innovation in some way… but you seem to be saying something rather interesting in that context, which is that what appears to be innovation is to a very considerable extent the result of learning, dare I say it, imitation. So what enterprises that want to create something new do is steal other people’s ideas. That’s very interesting. Another way in which your idea could be developed is to understand why creative institutions, far from being a universal feature of the economy, are in fact highly concentrated– very particular firms have contributed very large proportions of innovation in the 20th century; very few universities account for a big chunk of Nobel Prizes. Could your model help explain this?

50:46: Terence, one of the many things you’ve done in your career is to become a Vice Chancellor. And you’re clearly very committed to education and learning. Tell us a little bit about that role… that entrepreneurial drive to conquer the world of knowledge.