Science is Vital

I don’t suppose that there are many readers of this blog who are not aware of the Science Is Vital campaign for the support of UK science, but just in case: in response to the likelihood of continuing cuts to the UK science budget as spun by business secretary Vince Cable, we in the science community have begun to realize that the radio interviews and opinion pieces in more and less likely outlets may not be enough. Needless to say, blogs like this one (or even much more visible ones) tend to preach to the converted. Prompted in part by Evan Harris’ talk at Science Online 2010, many scientists and supporters of science realized that we need to talk directly to the people who actually hold the purse strings: Government and Parliament.

In particular, biologist, blogger, musician and novelist Jenny Rohn idly suggested doing something about it. As occasionally happens online, this struck a nerve, and Jenny very quickly found herself organizing something of a movement: Science Is Vital. Right now, the campaign is organizing four main activities:

The campaign has already received explicit support from The Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, Nature, and many more organizations, as well as eminent scientists (and the occasional celebrity). But this isn’t and shouldn’t be restricted to scientists: we’re not doing this to protect our livelihoods (alright, we’re not only doing it to protect our livelihoods), but because, well, science is, in fact, vital to the health of the nation — that’s why so many other countries, faced with similar financial problems, are planning to increase research spending. An excellent post in the Guardian’s Data Blog details the streams for science funding in the UK and compares the level to Japan, the US and Germany. Britain is already the most cost-effective scientific nation by some measures; there is no real fat to be cut.

Nonetheless, here it seems more and more likely that we’ll have to deal with cuts of something like 15 percent to the overall science budget, and exactly how that plays out in the face of considerable fixed costs such as subscriptions to CERN and the European Space Agency is unknown (William Cullerne Bown at Research Fortnight has run the numbers for a variety of scenarios for enacting a nightmarish 30% cut. They are all miserable.) No matter what the level, one unintended consequence is likely: instead of the Government’s stated ambition of getting rid of the worst of British science (not that there is very much sub-par science being done here already), the Guardian article about the brain drain that may (will?) follow drastic cuts to science funding is already showing that the cuts may have an even worse effect, driving the best scientists out of Britain.

(Worse still, let’s not forget that this year’s yet-to-be proposed cuts are just the latest in an ongoing shrinking of the physical sciences budget, in particular, over the last few years, ever since the formation of the ill-starred STFC form the former PPARC and CCLRC councils, which began life with an £80 million budget shortfall.)

So, please, if you support science in the UK, sign the petition, attend the rally (unfortunately, I’ll be out of the country), and write your MP. For what it’s worth, here’s the letter I wrote to mine, Andy Slaughter (Labour, Hammersmith, London):

Dear Mr Slaughter,

I am one of your constituents, and am also a Professor of Physics at Imperial College.

You are probably aware that science funding has been under severe pressure for the last several years, first under the previous Labour government, and now, along with so much else, under the Coalition.

Science is crucial to the economic and social future of the UK. It would be devastating for the UK to give up its position as almost certainly the second most powerful country in the world, after only the USA, in higher education and scientific research. Even today (again, after several years of cuts to grants in the physical sciences), the vast majority (over 90%) of research funding goes to world-class scientists, as judged by the latest Research Assessment Exercise. It is impossible to cut this without reducing the amount of excellent research produced in the UK. Moreover, threats of such cuts are already making scientists consider their options — most other countries are increasing, rather than decreasing, their science budgets not despite but because of the economic downturn and growing deficits.

The evidence is clear that investing in research brings a range of economic and social benefits, and that severe cuts at the very moment that our competitor nations are investing more could jeopardize the future of UK science.

Hence, I am sure that you will take the opportunity in the coming weeks to

The Science is Vital coalition, along with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, are calling upon the Government to set out a supportive strategy, including public investment goals above or at least in step with economic growth. Without such investment and commitment the UK risks its international reputation, its market share of high-tech manufacturing and services, the ability to respond to urgent and long-term national scientific challenges, and the economic recovery.

I look forward to hearing from you. Do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss these matters.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Jaffe