Haldane principle’s ‘centenary’ is a good time to bury its myth - Academic freedom needs stronger defences than a made-up principle.

For many years, experts have claimed the Haldane principle as a founding charter of British research policy. The principle’s origin is dated to the 1918 report of the Machinery of Government Committee, chaired by former lord chancellor Richard Haldane (pictured, left). The principle is supposed to state that, while governments may set research budgets, decisions on how the money is spent should be left to researchers.

And yet in 1962, Harry Melville, secretary of the main UK research council of the time, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), published a history of his department that did not mention the Haldane principle once. This was for the simple reason that it had not yet been invented.

The principle first appeared in its current form in February 1964. Austen Albu, an Imperial College London engineer, industrialist and Labour MP, noted that the Conservative government was painting Labour’s plans as seeking to control the work of scientists. Albu told parliament: “Allied to this political propaganda is the discovery of a new scientific principle—the Haldane principle; the principle that all scientific research in support of government policy must be conducted in independent research establishments.”

Later that year, with Labour now in office, the Conservative MP Quintin Hogg (pictured, right), who had been in charge of the research councils from 1957 to 1964, attacked Labour’s creation of a Ministry of Technology. “Ever since 1915,” he claimed, “it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields on what I have called the Haldane principle through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department itself.”

The panjandrums of research policy from the 1960s onwards were authoritatively dismissive of the principle. Solly Zuckerman and Victor Rothschild, government science advisers in the 1960s and 1970s, did not believe there was such a thing. Frederick Dainton’s 1971 report on the research councils avoided dealing with it. More recently, Bill Wakeham’s 2008 review of UK physics noted that Haldane’s report did not contain anything like the Haldane principle.

If Hogg did invent the Haldane principle there is a neat symmetry; both men were intimately concerned with research policy, and both became lord chancellor, with Hogg becoming Lord Hailsham. It’s interesting that Hogg’s founding version of the principle is focused on the need for an independent council of “industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons” rather than researchers, and that it mentions 1915, not 1918. The earlier date is more accurate, as the crucial moment was the DSIR’s creation.

Haldane did argue for modelling the new research councils on the DSIR. But his structure for the councils was severely criticised in the 1960s, and overturned for much research. You could argue that the Hailsham-Haldane principle disappeared several decades ago, when the industry department was given responsibility for the research councils.

But it is vital to remember that in Haldane and Hailsham’s day the research councils controlled only small fractions of state research spending. They were, for example, marginal in the research effort of the second world war. The bulk of government-funded research was run by departments and thus controlled by ministers. In any case, Hailsham’s Haldane is not our Haldane, or Albu’s.

The story of the supposed Haldane principle is a good example of how experts can peddle erroneous views long after they are shown to be wrong. It is a historical myth that systematically distorts the discussion of British research. Yet here we are in 2018 marking its anniversary. What is going on?

The Haldane principle was nearly always a myth created to bolster the case for academic freedom. It was only invoked when it was supposedly violated. That—to the extent that it is a clear argument at all—is still true today.

Back in 1918, or indeed into the 1960s, academic freedom was a principle that didn’t need to be written down. Nor would it have been associated with the research councils. Academic freedom resided in academics themselves, their universities and learned societies. The state funded these bodies in ways that were respectful of that shared understanding.

But that was then. Today, academic freedom needs a more robust definition and defence than a made-up principle. The time has come to stop discussing research policy using misleading historical analogies and misleading historical lessons. It is not only Brexiteers, alas, who fail to understand the lessons of robust historical analysis.

This article appeared in Research Fortnight 12 December 2018