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Haldane 100

Haldane 100 - Marking the Centenary

One century ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the Report of the Machinery of Government Committee was presented to Parliament. In laying out a map for governmental and ministerial reform, the report also set out a series of lessons and principles for evidence-based policy making. 

Now, in the context of some of the largest economic, social, political and geographical changes and challenges that countries have struggled to face, thought-leaders in this area will meet to discuss the report and how its conclusions can be applied to the challenges facing government today and for the next 100 years.

UK Research and Innovation in partnership with the Institute for Government will host a special debate on 12 December to mark the centenary and explore the continued relevance of Lord Haldane’s report.

Haldane: The Principle

Central to public funding of research in the UK is the 'Haldane Principle'. It ensures that decisions about which research projects to fund are made by experts in the field. However, as government answers to the tax-paying electorate, it is government that sets the overall strategic direction that research should take. The intention is that excellence is the main criterion for investment in research and that it is conducted in the best interests of the country.

Century-old origin

However, the Haldane principle is not the only idea emerging from the Machinery of Government report that has shaped our research system. The report was crafted against the backdrop of the First World War, which understandably had prioritised the funding of research focused on the war effort.

The report recognised that government would work better if it made use of evidence. One of Haldane’s recommendations was to separate departmental research from 'intelligence and research for general use'. He proposed that general research should be carried out under the auspices of advisory councils – the forerunners of the research councils - and be overseen by a government minister who would head-up a Department of Intelligence and Research. However, nowhere in his report was any mention of the principle that we would recognise today as the one bearing his name.

Reinventing Haldane

In 1963 Lord Haldane’s report was cited by Quintin Hogg MP (later to become Lord Hailsham) as a rebuttal to a proposal by the Labour Opposition to increase central control of research if elected to government. Effectively, Lord Hailsham ‘invented’ the Haldane Principle in the form that is referenced to the present day.

UKRI and Haldane today

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was created through the Higher Education and Research Act, which received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017. UKRI launched in April 2018. It operates across the whole of the UK and brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK, and Research England (the research and knowledge exchange components of the former Higher Education Funding Council for England).

The Higher Education and Research Act for the first time wrote into legislation a definition of the Haldane Principle.  It means that government has a legal duty to consider that ‘decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an independent assessment of their quality and likely impact.’ This ultimately reinforces the importance of peer review and the subsidiarity of decision making in respect of research funding decisions.

Sir Paul Nurse also made reference to the relationship between government and the research base in his report that led to the creation of UKRI, citing the need for greater synergy and coordination between government and researchers; a focused national conversation between research, industry and government bringing more clarity regarding shared national priorities; and the ability to respond to new and emerging challenges in a prompt and coordinated way.

Haldane: The man

Born in 1856 to a well-known family of Gleneagles, Richard Burdon Haldane was already studying at Edinburgh University at the age of 16. Two years later he went to in Göttingen, Germany to study philosophy and geology. It was in Germany that the thought of a political career began, and on returning he entered the fray within the Whig Party, becoming an MP at 29. He supported improvements to housing, welfare, the enfranchisement of women and helped found the London School of Economics. His continued contacts with Germany (he visited the Technische Hochschule at Charlottenburg in 1901) led him to champion the need for the development of technical education.

As Secretary of State for War, Haldane introduced many radical reforms including the establishment of the Territorial Force. During the First World War he was accused of harbouring pro-German sympathies and forced to resign. Haldane was an early proponent of provincial universities and a great supporter of the Workers Educational Association. He translated the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, into English.

After Edinburgh, Haldane studied law and was called to the bar in 1879. Despite the demands of his legal caseload, Haldane found time to maintain his philosophical interests. In 1883, he published Essays in Philosophical Criticism, and in the same year, his translation of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. By 1887, Haldane was helping Gladstone with Irish legislation.

Haldane’s career in public office is extensive and was rewarded – he became a peer in 1911 and was made a member of the Order of Merit by George V. Less noticed were his academic successes. His popularity in Scotland was marked by his election in 1905 as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, and he was chancellor of the University of St Andrews shortly before his death, as well as the first chancellor of the University of Bristol for many years. Haldane was a visionary who realised that education, especially higher education, played a vital role in national efficiency.

Haldane died in 1928 at the age of 72. He was buried at Gleneagles, where a large contingent of regular and Territorial Army units attended.

Haldane: The future

The Haldane Report was a landmark study when it was published in 1918. It set out the principles that it thought should underpin the Government’s use of evidence and formation of policy.

To mark the centenary of the report, UKRI, the Government Office for Science and the Institute for Government held a short conference on 12 December to discuss the report and its significance – and how its lessons can be applied to the challenges of today and those that the UK will face over the next one hundred years.

Speakers and panel members included:

  • Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation
  • Lord David Willetts, Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation and former Minister for Universities and Science
  • Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics
  • Professor David Edgerton, Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London
  • Clare Moriarty CB, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Jennifer Rubin, Executive Chair of UKRI’s Economic and Social Research Council

Watch it here: Institute for Government video.