Questions, questions, questions

October 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

The questions over the future of science continues… And they weren’t exactly answered at the recent Science Question Time at the Royal Institution I went to. More and more rear their ugly heads every day, and every answer just leads to more questions. So actually quite a lot like science itself.

The discussion started with heaps of praise for David Willetts and the comparative success of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review. Colin Blakemore commented that he was sure Willetts had caught the infectious, unstoppable science bug. To which he pleaded guilty as charged. I won’t labour the points each person made, as there’s plenty of good discussions, posts and the Twitter feed from the night about what was said in plenty of detail. But what I will talk about are some of the issues that I think are pretty important to science at the moment.

The first being what effects cuts in other areas will have on the scientific community – museums are facing a 15% cut and, as I mentioned in my last post, universities are not only facing a massive cut, but also a massive hike in tuition fees following the Browne review.

Ah, the Browne review – having massive impacts all over the show. With different fees for different courses, and science being a very expensive course, should we expect fewer students choosing sciences for degree subjects? Janet Finch (co-chair for Council of Science and Technology) was concerned that social sciences had been overlooked, and that they were in serious danger. They have a powerful role to play, and the skills base is essential to ongoing research. David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science) and Philip Greenish (Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineers) thought the effects of the review would be far less. Willetts commented that the proposed models wouldn’t necessarily cost individual students more, and Greenish believes that it could be a positive move forward – that students will choose degrees based on their future outcomes and job potentials and this will encourage more to consider STEM subjects. He was very keen to point out that we need to focus on careers guidance, and a good support structure for potential talent. I’ll give them that. The careers guidance I got left a lot to be desired to be honest! But I think I’ll remain slightly sceptical about it being a ‘positive thing’ for now…

One thing I can see happening is the strain on the rest of university structure and the lecturers, researchers and all academics struggling to balance their research and teaching duties. This was mentioned on the night as well – are academics going to drown in an ever increasing sea of paperwork, even more competitive funding applications and REF scores? As Stephen Curry asked on the night, where exactly are the ground level savings universities have to make going to come from? Willetts talked with enthusiasm about US scientists contributions to iTunesU and other forms of communication, while Greenish said that translation was the going to be invaluable when creating better links, investments and ultimately generating the all important cash. But I’m not sure either got to the nub of the issue. Students paying more for tuition will undoubtedly expect more, and can the universities provide it with such cuts going on at the same time?

Personally I don’t think so, and I can see it happening around me. Sheffield has an amazing science department, but lack of money has forced them to reduce the number of postgraduate PhD students ‘demonstrating’ in undergraduate practicals because they can’t afford to pay them for their time. One class used to have 1 demonstrator for 16 students, and was given about 3 hours to mark their work. My sources there tell me this has been cut to 2 or 3 demonstrators for classes that now reach 120 students – and they are given 1 hour to mark their share of the work. How can their marking be as accurate and as detailed? How will the people lagging behind be noticed if a go-between is limited to scanning their work? And will this ultimately go full circle and affect the grades of the students and the teaching excellence and ratings of the university? It all smells like Catch 22 to me.

As for other budgets… despite a question from Colin Stuart, the effect of a reduction in museums’ funding was evaded to a large extent. Greenish said that it would affect the ability of unis to attract students but that we just have to work harder and be ‘clever’ at attracting young people, and enthusing them about science. Not a particularly in depth answer, or one that offered real solutions. But there are a lot of questions, and very few answers – I think a lot of this will be solved only with a ‘suck it and see’ approach.

And buried within all the talk of money there was the newest Big Issue for science – that of immigration, or more specifically the cap on immigration. While footballers and ministers of religion are exempt from this, researchers (both potential and current) who need visas are not. Is this going to be an issue to science, asked chair Mark Henderson; there’s a lot of scientists who think it will. I thought Janet Finch spoke excellently on this topic, probably because her views on it chimed with my own. She said that the best scientists feel their careers are in jeopardy, and importantly asked “What impression does this give?” She’s right – what will the best scientists around the world do? Will they beg and plead to come to a country that is closing down its borders? Or will they sigh and choose another lab in another country? Greenish agreed, saying that we aren’t good enough at keeping hold of our graduates and enthusing them to go into PhDs (and even then we’re not great at keeping them in science… I’m an example of that!). This will only be exacerbated if they’re not choosing science courses in the first place (see above paragraph… I told you this was a Catch 22). Finally, as Finch said you don’t recruit Nobel prize winners – you recruit exciting young talent. And often they’re from non European countries.

So this is all a bit depressing isn’t it? Is this the future of science – no undergrads, no money to educate undergrads anyway, no overseas students, no translation to industry (a point Greenish raised from the off and I have neglected to mention thus far as my rant is already reaching pretty epic proportions) and academics with no time to teach, apply for funding or research!

I honestly don’t think so. Because at the end of the day, we’re scientists (yes, I am still counting myself as one. Watch this space to see when it changes!!) – we’re used to dealing with problems. We’re resourceful, we can think around problems and we care about science. The sheer fact so many people cared about science is one of the main reasons the CSR result was so amazing. Even though the government may have found the Science is Vital campaign annoying, it had an effect. How do I know? ‘Cos David Willetts said so (I feel I should add a “so ner!” at this point). He said that the evidence base that the group created was enough to take the message home to the people in charge. It was a crucial message, and a credible message. It wasn’t an emotional, nebulous message; it was one of hard, cold facts. And recent stories in The Times (oh a little self plug, how jolly exciting of me) have received backing from the people who matter.

The next steps are obvious – keep going. Scientists have shown they can influence the government’s decisions, they have shown that amassing evidence and presenting it can make a difference and there is no reason to think this can’t be achieved time and time again in the future. Of course it won’t be easy, but it’s not about to be easy for anyone, in any sector. At the moment though, science has a voice, and one that’s being listened to – don’t let’s lose it.

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