11 October 2010
Two thousand people joined a rally outside the UK Treasury on Saturday to protest against the government's plans to slash research funding as part of measures to cut the budget deficit.
The demonstration was organised by campaign group Science is Vital, established just one month ago in response to a comment by business secretary Vince Cable that 45 per cent of research grants in the UK went to research that was not considered 'excellent'. He said the the bar would have to be raised as budgets were squeezed.
The rally drew 2000 protesters
© Anna Lewcock
'He got his sums wrong for a start,' says former research scientist Richard Grant of Science is Vital. 'He misread the data - most of British science is of international quality. We are already doing a lot with our funding, far more than any other country when you look at how many scientists we've got and how many papers we publish.'
Over 25,000 people have now signed the Science is vital petition, calling on the government not to reduce science funding as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which in a week and a half's time will reveal the government's spending plans for the next four years. While Cable has previously dismissed suggestions that the research budget could be cut by 35 per cent as 'way in excess' of figures being discussed, all government departments have been warned to prepare for cuts of 25 per cent.
'Cutting funding to science will backfire because it is precisely the research we do, the development, the innovation and the tech, that fuels the economy,' said Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, UK, whose blog post in response to Cable's comments planted the seed that grew into the Science is Vital campaign. 'We can't just hide in our labs any more. We want to send a message to politicians that if they persist in their idea of dismantling UK science there will be a political price to pay.'
A case of 'special pleading'?
With the British economy in a frail state, claiming that scientific research should escape the CSR unscathed could be seen as unrealistic and narrow minded: if science is protected, other budgets will be forced to take a greater hit. 'Scientists are just like everyone else - we want good public schools, we want good hospitals,' says director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan. 'But we know that if the UK wants to get there it's not going to do it by competing on cheap labour or digging more things out of the ground. It has to be a high-tech, modern economy that's forward looking.'
Cutting the science budget now will force talented young researchers to look for jobs elsewhere in the world says Khan, in countries like the US, Germany or China whose governments are investing heavily in science. 'By the time the government realises just how bad it is five years down the line, it's going to be too late - it's going to be really hard to bring that talent back and reinvigorate our science base.'
A view from the lab
'In the case of universities they're even talking about 75 per cent off our teaching budgets - there is no way we can survive that,' says Andrea Sella, a lecturer in inorganic chemistry at University College London, UK, who came to the UK in 1986 after studying at the University of Toronto in Canada. 'All the evidence shows that UK science is amongst the most efficient in the world, so the idea that we're going to be able to salami slice ad infinitum doesn't wash.'
Researchers in university departments already have very little administrative support, says Sella, so the idea that there is a significant amount of fat that can be trimmed is misguided.
'People are really scared,' says Science is Vital's Grant. 'If you close a thousand university departments you're going to have tens of thousands of people out of a job. We've only just got science funding levels from the government back up to the level they were in 1986 and people are worried - they're looking to move abroad, they're looking at other careers.'