Jul 5, 2020

Bonfire of the scientists is nothing to celebrate

written by Lisa Eason

The greatest generator of rising living standards is the powerful combination of science and entrepreneurship. This can deliver innovation and technological advances, which lead to material progress. Be it electric cars, medical discoveries, communication devices or improving crop yields, the commercialisation of inventions is what tends to make society more prosperous.

Improvements in fields such as transport, energy, agriculture and medicine all rely on basic and applied research. A great deal of the former takes place in academic institutions, primarily universities. Britain is a heavyweight when it comes to universities: we have 165, and more top-ranked institutions than the rest of Europe combined. Yet our country finds translating this academic prowess into business success difficult.

In theory, Britain enjoys a great asset in its universities, but their impact on society as a whole is a mixed blessing. While they educate about 50% of Britain’s young people, generate £7.3bn a year thanks to the intake of foreign students, and contribute heavily to the public good through research, their influence on our culture is more debatable. They inevitably prize the academic over the practical and tend to be staffed by those with left-wing political views.

A report from the Adam Smith Institute suggested that only 12% of academics generally voted Tory, while more than 60% supported Labour or the Greens. Despite the higher education establishment claiming that it believes fervently in diversity, when it comes to intellectual views, this philosophy disintegrates into groupthink.

It is obvious why academics tend to favour more government. Universities are, technically, charities, but they are to a large degree funded by taxpayers through research grants and loans to students. Inevitably, they mostly believe in more public sector and less private. Often this can mean an anti-capitalism mindset. Unfortunately, this spreads to the students. Higher education has produced armies of graduates who are suspicious of the profit motive and think the answer to all our problems is a bigger state and higher taxation.

However, a reckoning is coming for universities. They are suffering a quadruple whammy. First, foreign students will be in short supply for the next academic year: those from outside the EU pay much more for their courses than domestic and EU students, and have been a vital high-margin source of income for British universities. Second, students will have missed many months of proper tuition because of Covid-19. Plenty want refunds. Others are finding that online courses are adequate — and obtainable for a fraction of the price of a conventional degree. Third, students have not been using their campus accommodation and want rent discounts. Finally, the giant USS pension fund is likely to see a huge increase in its deficit, meaning lecturers and universities must contribute more.

Sadly, many doctors are not much more sympathetic to business, it seems. According to a BMJ survey, more than 60% of medics are left wing and just 24% right wing. No doubt this is because the NHS dominates healthcare and is the ultimate state leviathan, while medical organisations such as the British Medical Association behave like militant unions in protecting their members’ interests. Interestingly, surgeons are most likely to be right wing while psychiatrists are most likely to be left wing. This fits expectations: those who believe in markets deal with the world as it is in a practical way, while socialists try to remake it to fit their academic theories.

I know many scientists, and indeed specialised in science at school and university. I worry that too much science has moved from pragmatism to politics. I read publications such as New Scientist and observe the usual orthodoxy around issues such as climate change dominates.

Lockdown has been terrible for most businesses, yet the public sector — including the NHS and schools — is likely to remain untouched by the grim spectre of unemployment. When the inquests unfold about the handling of Covid-19, I suspect many who are suffering from the considerable collateral damage will turn their anger towards the expert group Sage and the role of scientific and clinical advisers. The reputation of scientists is likely to diminish. This will be a shame, because we need technological innovation to recover our standard of living and create new jobs.