When Vince Cable made his first major speech on science in September 2010, it was too much for Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London. Stung by the business secretary’s implication that “mediocre” British science deserved significant cuts in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, she blogged: “Sod it. Let’s march on London … Who’s in?”
She got a surprising answer. A month later, more than 2,000 people gathered outside the Treasury at the Science is Vital rally, chanting “Hey, Osborne, leave our geeks alone!” to the tune of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. A petition with 33,804 names was delivered to Downing Street, arguing that cutting science funding would amount to cutting off the economy’s nose to spite its face.
And it worked. When George Osborne, the chancellor, announced in the spending review that science funding would be frozen, but not cut, he explained: “Britain is a world leader in scientific research, and that is vital to our future economic success.”
Today, protesting scientists have been back in Westminster. Upset by the funding policies of the government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a new group called Science for the Future staged a mock funeral for British research. A petition was delivered to Downing Street in a coffin on a horse-drawn hearse, carrying a wreath spelling the word “Science”. One of the group’s leaders likened the EPSRC’s decisions to Stalin’s.
The message could not have been starker. The government’s funding strategy “puts the future of British science in mortal danger”.
In my new book, The Geek Manifesto, I argue that it’s essential for scientists, and those of us who care about science, to find a stronger political voice. When governments let science down, they do it not because they are following an “anti-science” agenda, but because indifference to the needs and demands of the scientific community does not appear to carry a political cost.
It is encouraging that scientists who feel strongly about the way their discipline is managed are making themselves heard. As Science is Vital showed, rallies and petitions that convey the strength of scientific opinion can make a difference, especially when they are backed by a strong argument and effective behind-the-scenes lobbying, as happened before the spending review.
Mock funerals and comparisons to Stalin, however, are not the right way to go about this. In hiring a public relations company to dream up a visually impressive stunt, Science for the Future has succeeded in winning extensive media coverage for its campaign. But in taking a tool from the Greenpeace campaigning kit, this new lobby group has turned to hyperbole that will do nothing to change the minds that matter or further its cause.
The EPSRC’s focus on asking scientists to predict the impact of their research, in line with wider government policy, does raise legitimate questions about the future of funding for basic science that may have unexpected spinoffs. But it is ridiculous to claim that this strategy could leave the whole of British science on life support.
By making an argument that is transparently absurd, and by engaging in strident personal criticism of the EPSRC’s leaders, this campaign is inviting ministers and the agency’s officials to reject their more measured concerns. Science is Vital was careful to be polite and not to over-claim. Science for the Future is setting itself up to be ignored.
Worse, these campaigners’ message – that science administration is broken and that a research council cannot be trusted to spend its money wisely – could actually be harmful to the wider interests of British science.
James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at Sussex University, pointed out today on Twitter that the Whitehall lobbying that accompanied Science is Vital succeeded in winning the spending freeze in part because it persuaded the Treasury that resources invested in science are invested with great efficiency. Science for the Future is muddying the waters in ways that could be used against science when the next spending review gets under way next year.
I’m all for robust campaigning on the issues that affect the health of British science: it will be necessary if ministers are to be persuaded of the strong case that increased investment in both basic and applied research is among the best ways to drive economic growth. But that campaigning has to be grounded in the facts that those of us who care about science hold dear.
As Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem science spokesman, says in The Geek Manifesto: “We are held back by the circumspection and rationality with which we speak, handicaps that do not encumber our opponents.” It’s an axiom that every science campaign should bear in mind.
[Bearers carrying coffin via Robert Hoetink / Shutterstock]