Next time, let’s speak up before the axe is falling: Science Is Vital

Axe

Today we have heard the result of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). The science budget has been frozen for the next four years. Once inflation is taken into account this amounts to a cut of around 10% in real terms. In announcing the (relatively modest) cuts, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said: “The Secretary of State (for business) and I have decided to protect the science budget. Britain is a world leader in scientific research and that is vital to our future economic success”. The choice of words is significant, since it echoes the name of the grassroots “Science Is Vital” campaign, started by Jenny Rohn with a blog post on September 8th. Here we are on the 20th of October, and the namecheck reflects the fact that the campaign, the lobby, the 33000 name petition and the demonstration that SiV organised forced the government to recognise the critical value of science to the economy and to recovery. SiV was supported by prominent scientists and celebrities, as well as institutions, including popular, trusted and influential household names such as Cancer Research UK. At the rally we heard magnificent and rousing speeches from people such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre. All these contributors helped persuade people to get involved, and I think they made a huge difference. The campaign received generous media coverage and there was parallel lobbying from other institutions, individuals and even (some say) mysterious Whitehall operators. Osborne’s words show – it made a difference andif he hadn’t understood that it is vital, I think science would have been facing permanently devastating cuts of 20% or more today.

I made my own very small contribution to the campaign and I am proud of it. I would have loved to help more, but it was a bit tricky to be fully involved from North Yorkshire (future campaigns take note, a London base is a definite advantage). I did design the “Science Is Vital” twibbon, and one or two posters. I tweeted and retweeted news of the campaign, and I contacted one or two individuals and institutions who lent their support. I wrote to my MP (three letters and a video blog) and I was very proud to travel down to London for the October 9th Demo. It was inspiring to meet the team behind the campaign and fantastic to see so many normally placid scientists, engineers and supporters moved to action (and tuneless, but verbose chanting).

As a helpful outsider I was privileged to have a ring-side seat in the organisation of the campaign, and I know how hard the organisers worked to achieve this fantastic result in such a short space of time. They truly deserve all the praise and gratitude that has been heaped upon them from scientists and supporters. They are (and I hope I haven’t missed anyone):

Jenny Rohn, Richard Grant, Imran Khan, Della Thomas, Michelle Brooke, Shane McCracken, Stephen Curry, Evan Harris, Hilary Leevers

The story of the campaign has been told elsewhere but I want to highlight some key strengths which made this campaign work (the credit, of course, belongs to the core team named above):

  • Speed is of the essence –  this was built on social networking, especially twitter which spread the word more quickly and effectively than would have been possible a few years ago. This helped to achieve a critical mass in time to influence the CSR.
  • Dynamism of leaders – the leaders of the campaign invested huge amounts of energy continuously over several weeks This sustained input took its toll at times, but I think it was critical to the successful outcome.
  • Infrastructure is important – web based project management was quickly deployed by Shane McCracken and the scienceisvital.org.uk domain was snapped up. The website (including petition) had to be coded and populated quickly.
  • Developing a polite, non-political, evidence based case – it was vitally important not to get sucked into a party political debate and to rely on evidence and argument rather than invective – to succeed we would need to persuade all sides, unions, opposition, government, charities, learned societies of the merits of the case, and any trace of political alignment would have undermined the consensus. 
  • At the same time we needed political nous (of e.g., Dr Evan Harris and CaSE Director, Imran Khan) –  this was important to understand the ins and outs of political lobbying and decision making and to avoid various pitfalls which might have trapped the unwary. On the other hand the grassroots, non-political nature of the original idea was central to its credibility and appeal to scientists.
  • Avoiding infighting – I am not sure how or why, but the campaign team managed to avoid much internal wrangling, and more or less everyone appeared to be pulling in more or less the same direction from day one. I think organising and acting quickly helps avoid the development of fissures and factions. Having mighty and well-developed frontal lobes is also an asset for would be activists, especially on twitter, which seems optimised to bring out the insecure beta baboon in some of us. 

The ten percent cuts that have been announced will still have a damaging effect on British science, particularly when combined with heavier cuts to the University teaching budget. Universities play a key role in basic research, and teaching and research are closely linked with many scientists contributing to both activities. Added to this our international competitors are planning more generous investment in research. With a global, mobile and highly skilled workforce, this will undoubtedly tempt some able scientists away from these shores, and prevent many more from moving to the UK. However in my view, today’s result is the best bad news we could have realistically hoped for, and indeed it is far better than my most optimistic hopes; the damage will be lighter, and less permanent. Students now studying their PhDs will have a chance of a post-doctoral role in the UK. Post-docs will have a better chance of winning their own funding.

A cynic might also wonder whether the scientists were deliberately provoked into anger, to help focus attention on research, and divert attention away from deeper cuts elsewhere. Scientists can be pretty smart, but most of us do not have the Machiavellian streak needed to outplay politicians at this kind of game. But even if it is true, I think it would have been crackers to stay silent; I really do think science is an investment in the future, and it needs to be protected even in these very difficult times. I think we had to make that case.

The biggest victory though (as others have pointed out) is that we have learned that when we speak out, we can make a difference. In my view with a few honourable exceptions (e.g., Prof Brian Cox, Prof Colin Blakemore) we have not done enough in the past to engage with the public. In the future we will all need to do our bit to ensure that everyone grows up understanding why we need science. Never again should we wait until the axe is falling to say it: “Science Is Vital”.

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One thought on “Next time, let’s speak up before the axe is falling: Science Is Vital

  1. SiV has to be one of the best examples of how an intelligent campaign should work. Action and evidence rather than just rhetoric, a relatively small team driving a clear, coherent and tightly focused agenda, with the added benefit of insider political nous. Oh, and lots of bloody hard work!The use of Twitter and Facebook was a complete eye opener for me.Don’t think anyone can really question their worth now.Totally with you on the frustrations of not being able to get more deeply involved from ‘up North’. We did our best under the circumstances I think.Oh yes, and it actually seems to have made an impression on the powers that be.Brilliant!

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