Science: Commercially Useful or Theoretically Outstanding?

Today was the next drip in the ongoing water torture that is the upshot of the government’s funding cuts on UK science: BIS Minister Vince Cable gave the coalition government’s first major speech on science. Rumors have been flying around of cuts of 20-30%, and we have been searching for any hints of the Government’s science strategy in advance of the comprehensive spending review next month.  The two biggest questions have been the overall magnitude of the coming cuts, and how the remaining money would be allocated. Would “economic impact” trump scientific excellence, favoring subjects (irrespective of quality) that can be monetized in the short term over so-called blue-skies research?

Cable indeed highlighted the importance of impact, and eventually boiled down the government’s strategy to funding research that is either “commercially useful” or “theoretically outstanding”. In so doing, he mentioned that 54% of UK science researchers were rated “world class” in the last RAE, and, by implication, that the remaining 46% is in danger. Hearing this, any scientist who has ever evaluated grants for funding councils like STFC would be puzzled: over the last few years we can’t even afford to fund all of the excellent proposals, much less any that aren’t obviously world-class. Indeed: even leaving aside the clear discrepancies between fields in the ratings, what isn’t mentioned in the speech is that this 46% receives less than 10% of all research funding (from 2% to 7% depending on what gets counted as “research funding”). William Cullerne Bown speculates that Cable therefore meant we are in for a 2%-7% cut, which would be seen in the current climate as a huge victory for science (although may only be a precursor to further cuts, in any event). I am not so sure; if he is looking to make large savings in the BIS portfolio this is a good sound-bite to excuse swingeing science cuts. But I, along with almost everyone else, wait and hope.

Jenny Rohn suggests we do more than wait: that we march on Parliament. She has set up a Facebook page to organize the campaign, “Science is Vital”, putting into practice the ideas espoused by Evan Harris at last week’s Science Online 2010 conference and in the aftermath of today’s speech. As long as we can control the message, this can be effective — but we can’t be seen as merely defending our own turf or, what could be worse, as white-coated boffins waving our test tubes at MPs. This isn’t funny, and science needs to be seen, correctly, as vital to the health of the nation.

(For more information and viewpoints on the speech, see posts by Kieron Flanagan, dellybean, Roger HighfieldEvan Harris, The Times Higher, and Peter Coles.)