The scientific establishment is united against plans to cut back research spending. It would do well to understand the politics behind the cuts…
Business Secretary Vince Cable urged universities to do “more for less” and said that we should not back research that “is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding”. In fact, he means research will not be funded that does not serve government policy. Most noticeably since the 1970s, governments have attempted to control research funding and those engaged in research through the research councils. These bodies have changed their missions to align with changes in government policy; they have not faced it or fought it openly when necessary. Instead, those that try and challenge the politics of the day – and we should not overestimate how many want to do this – have used subterfuge wherever they could to circumvent it.
But now the chips are down. Leaders of every eminent organisation proactive in the promotion of research are making their laudable defensive and indisputable statements, exposing the destruction to our productive capacity being wrought on behalf of capitalism by this particular government at this particular time. Science research is under threat, and all must defend it fiercely. With the morality of the City in charge, the gloves must come off.
Lord Rees, for example, president of the Royal Society, has elaborated on how cutting science funding would be a false economy. He said, “It is crucial that short-term austerity should not undermine our science and innovation capacity…Other nations, including the US, are raising their expenditure at the same time as our government plans to cut ours. This…risks sending a signal to young people that the UK is no longer a country that aspires to scientific leadership. A cut by x per cent would lead to a decline of much more than x per cent in top-grade scientific output. …The question should not be can we afford the investment – it should be can we afford the cuts.”
|Scientific research: it’s them or us.|
Other scientists also have also attacked government policy on the importance of research. Imran Khan, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said, “It’s depressing that in one of the most exciting scientific eras humanity has ever seen, Vince Cable had nothing exciting or inspiring to say about government policy in this area. Direct investment in science and engineering pays huge dividends, and makes up less than one per cent of total public spending.”
He continued, “At a time when politicians should be looking to science and engineering to help rebalance the economy, they are instead focusing on erecting barriers to scientific collaboration, and damaging our reputation as a global research hub by cutting investment – just as our competitors are increasing theirs.”
Likewise, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet. He writes: “Any contraction in the UK’s science and higher education budgets will signal a narrowing of this country's vision for its role in the world, a withdrawal from its current international leadership role in science. Our universities are second only to the US in terms of their contribution to knowledge creation and innovation. A reduction in the government’s investment in science will damage our ability to shape our national and international futures. It would be a cut too far.”
A recent report on the value of medical research by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences concluded that every £ spent on public or charitably funded cardiovascular research yielded 39p a year – in perpetuity – from direct or indirect gains to GDP. According to the Higher Education Funding Council, the number of patents granted to universities between 2000 and 2008 rose by 136 per cent, and consultancy income rose by 222 per cent.
Inventions from university bioscience departments have led to the creation of more than 200 new companies over the past decade, and in 2007 alone these firms employed nearly 14,000 people and had a combined turnover of £1.1 billion.
Cable was also taken to task by Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK. Funding is already “strongly weighted towards world-leading research and internationally excellent research”, he said.
Professor Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, which represents new universities, agrees: “The UK does not fund mediocre research. It funds excellent research which is found in universities throughout the UK. Any proposal to cut the quality related research funding stream would damage the UK’s research base and the capacity for future innovation vital to our economy.”
Why would a government full of educated people be doing this? Lord May, former president of the Royal Society and government chief scientist, said: “[Cable’s] claim that public money should not be made available to research that “is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding” is just “plain stupid.”
But Cable is not stupid. He must know that saying the government will fund “theoretically outstanding” research is a ludicrous statement. If the outcome of research were known before it was done, there would be no point in funding it. The policy would mean that the limited money available would go only to those rated outstanding in the past. The message to young scientists: go abroad.
It’s worse than stupidity. The Coalition is just not interested in science research because it has no long-term plans for Britain as a thriving economically independent country. Presumably other countries can do the research, just as they can do the manufacturing.
So it is a fight for the future of Britain, and it won’t be finished quickly. It will require not just the scientific “establishment” but all those who work in science to step up and lead fight. That means the trade unions: their relative silence and inaction is the greatest source of current weakness.