Monbiot's Money Myopia

George Monbiot isn’t always entirely wrong. Writing in the Guardian yesterday:

Why is the Medical Research Council run by an arms manufacturer? Why is the Natural Environment Research Council run by the head of a construction company? Why is the chairman of a real estate firm in charge of higher education funding for England?

Because our universities are being turned into corporate research departments. No longer may they pursue knowledge for its own sake: the highest ambition to which they must aspire is finding better ways to make money.

Last month, unremarked by the media, a quiet intellectual revolution took place. The research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for academic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct. The councils define impact as the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy. But how do you demonstrate the impact of blue skies research before it has been conducted?

The increasingly cosy relationship between government, industry and the Academy (we’d throw activism in there, too) is certainly a problem. But that’s not to say Monbiot is entirely right.

First, his article is notable for what it leaves out. He could have added: Why is the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) chaired by the vice-president of a firm offering carbon-finance products? Or why is the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chaired by a businessman and green activist?

Second, this linear model of research that Monbiot complains about is also remarkably attractive to those at the top of institutional environmentalism. We reported, for example, on Sir David King’s advocacy for just such a linear model of research funding when he argued that the money spent on the Large Hadron Collider would be better spent saving the climate.

Moreover, since Lord Stern’s report on the economics of climate change, the ‘economic impact’ part of the equation that Monbiot scoffs at is increasingly central to the environmentalist research agenda. And it is Lord Stern himself who heads up the CCCEP, of course. The CCCEP’s own model of research is itself linear, as demonstrated by its mission statement:

Climate change and its potential impacts are increasingly accepted, but economic, social and political systems have been slow to respond. There is a clear and urgent need to speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to unavoidable climate change.

The Centre’s mission is to respond to this need by advancing public and private action on climate change through innovative, rigorous research.

But more than that, we have argued repeatedly here that, on environmental matters, the interests of government, industry, academia and pressure groups are remarkably similar. The only contingent that begs to differ, in fact, is the electorate. Which is why the CCCEP’s own linear research model is directed towards the specific goal of changing behaviour.

Monbiot complains that NERC is run by the head of a construction company. And yet that hasn’t stopped it reframing its activities under the banner of climate change and the like. From the front page of NERC’s website:

NERC funds world-class science in universities and our own research centres that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We are tackling the 21st century’s major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. We lead in providing independent research and training in the environmental sciences.

And meanwhile, obesity researchers, philosophers, historians and psychologists peer at the world through their own green-tinted spectacles.

In the rather more crude version of Monbiot’s argument, he claims that a conspiracy of oil interests has paid for the ‘distortion’ of science. Yet it turns out that the cash available to the alarmists – who more often than not make arguments that are well out of kilter with the ‘consensus’ position without drawing Monbiot’s criticism – exceeds the denialists’ efforts by several orders of magnitude. In this case too, Monbiot’s critical eye has too narrow a perspective. It’s okay for there to be a relationship between academia, private interest, and the state when it suits him. As we have said before, when you wear green spectacles, you cannot see anything that is painted green – greenwashed.

The issue here is clearly not merely commercial, as George seems to imply. The fact that well-connected people are able to turn their social status into cash is no surprise – it was ever thus. What is interesting is that where once we imagined academia to speak truth to power, it is increasingly expected to speak Official Truth®™ for power.

13 thoughts on “Monbiot's Money Myopia”

  1. The left have made much about the US military industrial complex, but ignore the scientific-technological elite who have distorted science into a political monster for their own ends…Eisenhower warned of this in 1961…

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded…. in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite…”

  2. Why is the Grauniad run by socialists?

    Why is academia run by socialists?

    Why do socialists still “believe”, contrary to all historical evidence of the efficacity of socialism to bring wealth, health and liberty to the people?

  3. Robert – ‘Why is the Grauniad run by socialists?’

    It isn’t.

    ‘Why is academia run by socialists?’

    It isn’t. Look: Monbiot: ‘The councils define impact as the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy.’

    What that means is that research must have a commercial application. That’s not socialist.

    Perhaps we understand ‘socialism’ differently. Maybe you could explain what you think it is.

  4. You go too far here, chaps. Not all academics see the world through the prism of climate change. There are, after all, other political agendas which also influence research fundings and outputs, such as terrorism. And some academics even do work unrelated to such influences (gasp!).

  5. Money isn’t a corrupting influence on academia. In engineering at least, money is the main influence for research. It always has been and always will be. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake has it’s place in the arts and astronomy, but the fact is that science exists to improve the lives of humanity, and if you make something that will do that, then you can and should sell it. It may not be your idealized idea of research, but it is an effective motivator.

    The problem comes in where you make up problems to hock your product. It takes a lot of investment to make a cholesterol-lowering drug. When your research shows that lower cholesterol has such a small benefit that it isn’t tenable in the studies, a scientist should accept it and move on. However, a businessman will attempt to spin the results.

    This is where ethics comes in. The hippocratic oath and the engineer’s code of ethics were designed to solve these delimmas. Doing the right thing should usurp all. The problem comes when doctors and scientists abandon their oaths for money, not before.

  6. What’s most interesting here is the comment that “There is a clear and urgent need to speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to unavoidable climate change.” The simple fact is that these aims are contradictory. ADAPTATION to climate change can be done, and must be done, regardless of the source of that change. What most “warmists” and warmist research seeks to promote, however, is the PREVENTION of warming by reducing human-created greenhouse gasses. But if you want to prevent something, then the CAUSE of the problem is everything, and that cause– the link between humans, greenhouse gasses and global warming– has not and probably cannot be proven. That this mission statement is so fundamentally flawed suggests that the whole enterprise is likewise.

  7. Editors, I usaually defer to your greater experience in the area of argumentation and words, but I will try to take you on here (purely as an exercise in self-improvement, of course).

    Grauniad: Well, perhaps we are arguing over the meaning of “running” the rag. Yes, it is a corporation, I guess, with shareholders, but they don’t “run” it, although they get dividends, I assume. I haven’t met a reader (misdirection, sorry) nor read an article by the editors or other contributers, which isn’t socialist and thinks that socialism is the saintly path. The paper’s revenues depend upon state job adverts.

    Academia: State funding, unless I am wrong (don’t have the figures) dominates. These funds are distributed by a plethora of organizations funded by the state. The benefit of society is always the clarian call of the advance of the state.

    When Moonbat is complaining about research funding, it is because the funsding is not going to his pet projects, but to some other Lysenkoism.

  8. Robert, we were seeking more for a definition of ‘socialism’.

    ‘State funding’ is an inadequate definition of it, not least because so many countries that simply couldn’t be described as ‘socialist’ fund things. The funding of education and research in the USA is simply vast. Is it ‘socialist’?

    Maybe it is, in your view. But then the term ceases to have any value, either as a pejorative, or to refer to a particular political philosophy.

  9. Ben D, sorry, but science doesn’t exist to improve the lives of humanity.

    Science exists because some individuals have an annoying desire to be right or understand correctly; and, most importantly, to gnaw holes in that other guy’s theory. Basically, it is due to obsessive perfectionism and intrigue in detail and compulsion of same.

    Science, as a practice and technique, has evolved, been developed and understood, over millenia of arguing, so that basic mistakes and frauds can be avoided, and rational debate be held over competing theories.

    Archimedes, if we believe the tale, was excited by the chance of making a buck by solving a king’s problem.

  10. Editors,

    To me, the state always is socialistic in nature; it always has the imperative to grow and control more and all activities within its domain, for whatever reason.

    It is, to me, logical that it should be so, stemming from the very being and intent of the state: it exists to regulate society. It starts off with punishing murder and theft, keeping the thugs at bay, but moves on, relentlessly, to banning plastic bags and outlawing personal acts in your own home. The latest boon to the state is regulating breathing (CO2) and energy usage. TOTAL CONTROL.

    Now, I understand why the state is necessary, but as a libertarian, I see it as a necessary EVIL, whose ever grasping powers must be resisted.

    In summary, I see all state organisations as socialistic; and they become so: BBC? US EPA? Goodness, that last one is even headed now by a member of the socialist internationale!!

  11. Is a libertarian society (laissez-faire capitalist and socially liberal) even possible?

    If welfare benefits were abolished, then the employing class would be able to impose conformity on the populace via “Conform or starve!”

  12. You say: “George Monbiot isn’t always entirely wrong.” I’d go further: “George Monbiot is often entirely right”. His article at
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/18/police-protest-freedom-of-speech
    is to me a model of radical journalism.
    I have just wasted two days commenting on Guardian environment, trying to get George to explain why it is ok for him to base his dire predictions of “the end of life as we know it” on research financed by Exxon, while we common mortals are frequently criticised for quoting sources funded by the same Exxon. No reply.
    It”s not for nothing that Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde is a classic of British literature

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