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.
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.