Thursday, 9 September 2010

The politics of science funding, in two parts: Part Two - what 'the scientific community' does next

On Wednesday September 8th 2010 the Business Secretary Dr. Vince Cable laid out his plans for the future of science and technology funding in the UK in a speech as Queen Mary, University of London. I'd like to contribute to the debate the speech has sparked, in two parts - Part One looked at two concepts likely to be at the heart of the Coalition Government's approach to science funding; the Spin-Off, and commercially useful research. Part Two focuses on the science community's reaction to Dr. Cable's speech, and the implications for the relationship between science, government and the economy.

There has been an extensive, and on the whole negative, reaction to the Business Secretary's speech on the future of science funding - here are my thoughts on that reaction.

William Cullerne Brown, over on his Equisite Life blog, has gathered much of the reaction as found in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Cable's speech in a timeline-style description of a day on which the Business Secretary went from Saint Vince to, in Cullerne Brown's words,
an object of ridicule and loathing

As you can see from his post, much of the reaction was indignant and laced with (gallows?) humour - Andy Lewis, author of the excellent Quackometer blog, lead the way with jokes about cutting the value of pi and the number of planets in the solar system (because, of course, Neptune and Mercury were not proving to be "commercially useful").

Bloggers such as telescoper (the physicist author of the In The Dark blog) and Dr. Evan Harris on the Guardian Science Blogs took a somewhat different tack, dissecting particular elements of the Cable speech, focussing especially on the claims that a high proportion of grants are awarded for research that is not of sufficiently high quality - a disturbing claim that does not stand up to much scrutiny as Drs. Harris and Stephen Curry showed.

Given the high stakes in the battle over science funding I can understand the use of cutting satire for emphasis - but, without wanting to be a killjoy, I'd like to see a somewhat more constructive stream of criticism emerge, and for good reason.

For better or for worse, scientific endeavour in this country depends largely on public funding and/or subsidy - the government remains one of the (if not the) central pillars of funding for science, through the Research Councils and various associated bodies. It is vital, for the interests of science and those of government, that a wide schism doesn't appear in the relationship between the two - and given recent the turbulent times, epitomised by the sacking of Prof. David Nutt from his post as chief drugs advisor amongst other troubling episodes - these are precarious times for the way government and the scientific establishment interacts.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's vital (as the Twitter hashtag #ScienceIsVital shows) that scientists communicate to the those in government, particularly to those in the Treasury, that research is a worthwhile endeavour that deserves continued backing. There is every need to campaign against arbitrary measures of economic utility; against the impression that lots of money is spent on non-excellent work; and against the likelihood of damaging cuts in the (relatively meagre) science budget when so much public spending (think Trident, many PFI schemes, subsidies to bonus-paying banks and so on...) is worthy of being sacrificed first.

So let's gather the forces of scientific thought and campaign like never before - but not in a way that borders on the ad hominem against political personalities; not because scientists represent just another special interest group, frightened of change and protective of our comfortable status; or because science is a sacred cow that on some moral principle should never be introspective and reflect on how to make better use of its resources (ironically it's the ring-fencing of the NHS budget, because it's seen as untouchable, that's lead to science coming under such pressure).

Rather, let's make out voices heard because the evidence shows that spending on science generates wealth; because scientific research has enabled society to progress in myriad ways, from improved health and well-being to communications technology; because despite its shortcomings and imperfections, science remains the best way humans have for understanding the world around us and as world leaders in scientific discovery it falls to the UK to safeguard a legacy of well-funded research facilities for future generations.

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