Science is vital, but is it saved?

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

So, the Comprehensive Spending Review is out – and it seems that the past month’s campaigning has made an impact, with George Osborne pretty much name-checking Science is Vital: “Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and this is vital to our future economic success.”

So what has been going on in the past month? My guest post on The Times’ Eureka Daily blog discusses the campaign, and why I believe that science is vital. From signing the petition, which now has over 35,000 signatures, to attending the rally and lobbying Parliament, I wanted to get my voice heard. Before I entered my current guise as a journalist in training, I too was a scientist – a bona fide lab coat-wearing, Bunsen-burning scientist – and the proposed cuts to funding in the UK shocked me.

During the last month Dr Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL decided to announce “No more Dr Nice Guy” and began rallying the troops. The geek troops. Researchers, policy makers, science communicators and even ‘normal people’ signed the petition, over 2000 attended the mass meeting outside the Treasury (I’m sure many more would have come if they’d been told about Dr Evan Harris’ singing) and a lobby on Parliament ended with 110 MPs signing the EDM to say that science funding shouldn’t be slashed. She has every reason to be proud of her achievements, and has written about exactly what the campaign has meant to her.

Throughout the events there were many excellent speakers and champions of the cause, each putting forward intelligent and insightful political, scientific and even personalarguments about why science is vital.

We have a wealth of scientific excellence in this country, far more than could be covered in one paragraph in one blog post. It has achieved all of this with the lowest level of investment of all the G8 countries bar Italy. As Colin Blakemore said at the rally, the UK can lay claim to 12 % of citations worldwide, and yet only 0.55 % of the GDP is invested in science (compared to 0.82 % in the US). The UK is a world leader in so many fields of research, and amazingly talented scientists flock here to become part of this community. Forcing universities, research institutes and funding bodies to tighten their belts even further would undoubtedly have a huge impact on economic growth.  We can see other countries putting more and more money into science as a way of getting out of recession – so why was the UK are proposing to do the opposite? As David Morris MP said, science and technology is a burgeoning industry; everything is a product of science.

All of these questions were raised in the run up to the CSR, and on the day we waited with bated breath – would the campaign have succeeded? How would science fare?

The answer is, quite well. Funding for research has been frozen – in that the £4.6 billion spent each year has been ‘ring fenced’ – which amounts to a real life cut of about 9 % over the next four years, but it’s an outcome that, to me, seemed amazing when only a week earlier Julian Huppert MP had stated that anything less than a 25 % cut would render the campaign a success. So we have something to celebrate. The funding for medical research will rise to keep up with inflation, and so is not facing any reductions. But it’s not all plain sailing, and there will have to be savings made to cover the real terms cut that the research councils will encounter. Talk is of physics and the astrological sciences taking the brunt of this due to large investments such as the Diamond Light Source and their commitments with CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.

But looking into this a little deeper, universities are taking a whopping 40 % cut and there has been much debate as to what this will mean to science, and raises a whole cohort of questions. How will we encourage exciting new talent into the field? Will the future be secure when the tuition fees are going to increase so far students can’t afford to come to university? Will the ‘real term’ cut of 10 % mean reductions in the funding of PhD students? Only time will tell.

As it stands this is one small step for science… but will this budget allow the UK to make any giant leaps?

Further reading: Evan Harris has a great blog on about whether science is really safe on The Guardian‘s website, and my fellow City student, Jack Serle also makes some excellent points in his post about the CSR on his blog Extra mural.


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