The ‘Haldane Principle’ is not 90 years-old. It was not the creation of the 1918 Committee chaired by Richard Burdon Haldane. Rather, the ‘Haldane Principle’ was invented by the Conservative Party sometime in 1963.

As David Edgerton, Professor in the History of Science at Imperial College London has pointed out, the idea that it should be academics rather than politicians who determine how research funds are spent does not appear in Haldane’s 1918 Report on the Machinery of Government, so often credited with its birth. In fact, it does not appear in records at all until 1963 when the Tory party invented it.

If anything the notion of independent research councils should be called not the Haldane but rather the ‘Hailsham Principle’. For it was the Conservative Member of Parliament, Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) who – attacking the new Labour Government’s establishment of a Ministry of Technology – defended it in the House of Commons in 1964:

This is a totally new departure from recent practice and in my opinion at least, is a most retrograde step. Ever since 1915 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.

As a principle, Hailsham’s position was perhaps not so bad. But its fast and loose approach to history stands as a good example of what happens when politicians involve themselves in research.  For in neither the 1918 Haldane Report nor in the 1915 foundation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research – alluded to in 1964 by Hailsham – can the principle of academic management of government funding be found.

If origins are needed they lie in the foundation of the University Grants Committee, the idea for which was proposed by Haldane as early as 1905. Since 1889 the newer universities and colleges in England had been receiving ad hoc government grants and various committees had been established to press for their extension and organise their distribution. Following the Treasury’s receipt of a university petition in 1904, Haldane was appointed to chair a Committee investigating the matter and it was this Committee that recommended the establishment of a permanent and impartial advisory body that would distribute government money to universities: not earmarked for particular purposes, but given in a block and disposed according to the colleges’ own discretion. In 1906 the first continuing Advisory Committee on University Grants was established with William McCormick – then Secretary of the Carnegie Trust for Scottish Universities – at its head.

But state-aid to universities remained chaotic. The new universities and colleges received grants on a case-by-case basis which only ever partially funded their operation costs. Moreover, the considerable tensions between the Treasury, the Board of Education and the Department of Agriculture – all of which took responsibility for distributing monies – made provision a complicated and messy process. Oxford and Cambridge refused government help altogether, and in 1910 the President of the Board of Education, Walter Runciman still remained clear that ‘State-aid to university teaching would … be of doubtful advantage if it did not stimulate private effort’.

It would take the destruction of the First World War to finally convince the Government and the universities alike of the need for a national system of state support for higher education. But from 1905 the principle of funding at a distance was established. Haldane would have been proud.