Saturday was my debut as an activist in the UK. I walked out of the lab (well, out of a friend’s freshly-warmed house in Lambeth with a fading hangover, truth be told) and joined over 2,000 fellow nerds in marching on Westminster. For those of you outside the UK or living under a rock – there’s a spot of bother with the economy over here and recent governmental murmurs (with the emphasis being on ‘mental’) have pointed to science funding copping a cut of up to 25%.
The rally was part of the Science is Vital campaign, which all started with a blog post. The ensuing flurry of twitchy tweeting soon spawned a veritable Twitternado (just search #scienceisvital), a website, a petition and a fully-fledged lobbying campaign. I was hugely impressed with the turn-out, the speakers and the overall vibe on Saturday; congratulations must go to Jenny Rohn, Evan Harris and everyone else involved. As Oxford neuroscience standard-bearer Colin Blakemore said, it takes something pretty remarkable to get scientists onto the streets en masse – and it wasn’t just the prospect of Evan Harris leading a singalong.
I was also quietly chuffed to see that a not-entirely-flippant slogan I’d floated during the Twitter build-up had appeared on the official placards (see picture, left; once again for those outside the UK, this is a very unsubtle dig at last year’s parliamentary expenses scandal). Initially I’d thought that throwing muck, however playfully, would probably be the wrong approach to take – surely we want the politicians on side! But I guess it was good for giggles, and it tapped into the frustration of finding yourself the target of savage cuts when you’ve recently seen taxpayers’ money being so impressively mis-spent.
That’s a bit of a red herring, though. In fact, what we’re talking about is the relative merits of science funding compared with other major avenues of government spending. There are going to be cuts. Lots of cuts. Cuts: The Musical, the Guardian has suggested. More than half a million public sector workers will lose their jobs. Much as we in science often feel insulated from the raging of the economic climate, you might think that on this occasion maybe we should get wet too. But Colin Blakemore and others made the strong point that other countries have chosen a different strategy and invested in research rather than shrinking away from it, punting on long-term growth instead of short-term savings.
That’s the problem with science – you really can’t judge it by immediate gains. Ask anybody: it’s a slow game. Slower than chess, and bridge, and Monopoly, and even Risk. It’s like Bresskopoly. It grinds. And that’s what’s really worrying about Vince Cable’s comments about 45% of UK research not being ‘excellent’ – how can you tell? It’s not finished!
The very idea that lopping a quarter off the budget will leave the best 3/4 of projects still funded is ludicrous. Some exciting projects don’t get funding right now – and, yes, some of the ones that do have funding won’t bring in very exciting results. That’s the way it works. The phrase ‘less with more’ is an impossible dream, and a fallacy.
So hands off, George and Vince. If you’re not careful, you’ll wake up in twenty years, all the scientists will be in America and Singapore, and you’ll be living in a cave. With a duck island.