Opinion: science should be protected from the cuts

It’s been a heady week for British science in the wake of the Nobel prize announcements.

British reproductive biologist Robert Edwards was awarded the prize for medicine for his role in developing the in-vitro fertilisation techniques that led to the world’s first “test-tube baby”. In the same awards, the prize for physics was given to a pair of Russian-born scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who we are lucky enough to have currently working at Manchester University. Incidentally, Geim is also an Ig Nobel laureate for developing an experiment in which he levitated a live frog using magnetic fields acting on the tiny diamagnetic properties of the water molecules in the frog’s body.

Science in this country, however, is under threat. Although we hoped to have seen greater investment in research under the Labour government, former Science Minister Lord Drayson did at least manage to maintain reasonable levels of funding for research, and planned for the long term.

I understand the “all in it together” sentiment of making budgetary cuts of a similar scale across all departments, but research funding is one area in which a small cut can make a huge difference. Science is one of the most international career paths there is. Collaborations take place across national boundaries even when the politics of those countries dictate against it: German scientists who did not sympathise with their leadership were welcomed into Britain during World War II and even put to work on classified military research and Britain’s only female Nobel prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin collaborated with Russian and Chinese crystallographers during the Cold War.

The lingua franca of English (and mathematics) in scientific research and the universality of scientific method make moving your laboratory much easier than moving a bank or legal practice. So it is a very real concern that, if the grass starts to look even slightly greener in Germany, America or Singapore the top research talent in Britain will pack up their test tubes and go.

In the run up to the general election, I was convinced that the Lib Dems had the strongest policy on science, thanks in part to the tireless advocacy of Evan Harris. But supporting research in the UK shouldn’t be a political statement – it needs strong support from all parties. The fight to protect research budgets is currently being spearheaded by the Science is Vital campaign: a non-partisan organisation supported by numerous high-profile researchers (and with, apparently, the 200% support of Sir Patrick Moore) as well as several charities and lobby groups. I urge all LDV readers to sign the petition and consider attending the rally this Saturday outside the Treasury on King Charles St.

In parallel with the campaign, our own Julian Huppert has tabled an EDM stating support for the protection of science budgets. Please also encourage your MP, of whichever political persuasion, to add their name to this EDM (extra points if you live in Bosworth!)

With an investment of only 0.55% of GDP in research at a time when the United States, France and Germany are increasing their research budgets in order to promote growth it is vital that we don’t drop the ball and lose the momentum of our current research output. I very much hope to see British and British-based scientists honoured again in Stockholm in the years to come.

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22 Comments

  • It might be worth mentioning that Julian’s EDM is 767.

  • Tony Butcher 8th Oct '10 - 1:13pm

    Couldn’t agree more with this post.

    Investment in science is important on so many levels. If we are to have a vibrant, innovative economy scientific research must be sustained as it forms the basis for manufacturing innovation, additionally if we are to tackle climate change and energy dependency we need scientists to work on new ways of producing energy and ways in which we use energy. Carbon reduction is all very well but what is really needed is scientific investigation to alternatives.

    We also need more investment in science in schools, we need a new generation of scientists coming up through the ranks who understand the scientific needs of todays society and endeavor to tackle those needs.

  • Darren Reynolds 8th Oct '10 - 1:29pm

    Ensuring the protection of scientific research is by far the biggest priority for securing the future our of country, particularly in the longer term. The most important factor in maintaining a scientific base is continuity of funding. That’s even more important than the absolute level.

    The Science is Vital Campaign have organised a petition, which had 13,000 signatures by Monday this week and is gaining 1,000 more per day. They are planning a rally near the Treasury at 1400 tomorrow, and a Parliamentary lobby at 15:30 in Committee Room 10 in the Commons on Tuesday 12 October. I hope that these events will draw attention to the depth of feeling among a group (academic researchers) who are not renowned for being emotional or belligerent!

    In particular, given that £388bn is spent annually worldwide caring for Alzheimer’s patients, just imagine what a one year delay in the onset of the disease could do in terms of the economic contribution. On top of the impact on the social care costs would be reduced medical care costs and increased economic activity from those who would otherwise be sufferers. Over a decade that could total £1trillion in the UK alone. And that’s without even considering the benefit to the individuals themselves in terms of quality of life, or considering the case for other neurodegenerative diseases. Vince Cable wants to see investments in science that have a business case. It’s hard to imagine a business case more compelling than that.

  • Couldn’t agree more. We also need to rid ourselves of the barmy immigration cap so that top research talent from other countries can live and work here.

  • Thanks for the comments guys.

    @Prateek: of course friends-and-family ties prevent scientists moving abroad, but that is true of any profession. My point is that science has fewer barriers to emigration than many other professions as the culture is so universal and universities are usually very welcoming to a talented researcher with a proven track record. Yes – hopefully see you at the rally!

    I also meant to link to Evan’s earlier article in the Guardian:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/political-science/2010/sep/09/vince-cable-science-policy-excellence

    in which he points out that 90% of the Hefce budget is allocated to projects with either a 4* (world-leading) or 3* (internationally excellent) rating. This demonstrates how hard it is to cut anything at all without detriment to the quality of British research output.

  • Painfully Liberal 8th Oct '10 - 2:18pm

    Yay science and all that, but all research is not equal. In this country we have researchers who are pushing ahead the very limits of human understanding, we have researchers who are at the cutting edge of technology, producing the innovations that will drive forwards tomorrow’s economy and researchers who are frankly doing neither of these things. Obviously it would be lovely if we could fund every scientist to do whatever research interests them but we can’t and never could. We’ve always had to make decisions about who gets funding and who doesn’t and since we’re having to play the “if you don’t cut this, what do you cut instead?” game I simply don’t believe that every scrap of current science funding is defensible.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Oct '10 - 2:30pm

    “Obviously it would be lovely if we could fund every scientist to do whatever research interests them but we can’t and never could. We’ve always had to make decisions about who gets funding and who doesn’t and since we’re having to play the “if you don’t cut this, what do you cut instead?” game I simply don’t believe that every scrap of current science funding is defensible.”

    But do you have any basis for that belief?

    You seem to be under the impression that the government currently “[funds] every scientist to do whatever research interests them.” How can that be reconciled with the fact that the research councils are even now unable to fund all the grant applications which receive the highest rating for quality, based on assessment by referees?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Oct '10 - 2:53pm

    In fact, as Ed went to the trouble of posting the link, why not read the example it gives of how selective the research councils already have to be?
    “At the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) one grant awarder Alex Murphy has explained in a blog comment that his grants committee received 16 applications, 14 of which were ranked as excellent by rival scientists (in an imperfect-but-better-than-any-other- way-of-doing-it system called peer review) but that they only had the resources to fund a solitary one.”

  • @Painfully Liberal

    Of course not every scrap of research is at the cutting edge of technology. And of course not all research is in technology, nor should it be!

    As I said above, though, 90% of Hefce funds are allocated to projects rated at 4* or 3*. If you cut only lower-rated research activity, you’d be able to make a maximum of 10% cuts, but you’d be putting 45% of Hefce-funded scientists out of a job: a huge human impact for a small percentage cut.

    In addition, econometric analysis suggests that directly increasing funding to research councils (i.e. supporting basic research) is the most effective strategy to increase growth in market sector productivity (compared to, for example, tax credits to companies developing innovative products):

    http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/business-school/research/publications/discussion_papers/public_support

  • Do I get a “Positive response from AAS” T-shirt for this? 😉

  • Painfully Liberal 8th Oct '10 - 3:08pm

    No, I specifically said “we can’t and never could” fund every scientist to do whatever research interests them. My point is that we already have criteria to decide who gets funding and who doesn’t and tightening up the criteria to save money whouldn’t bring the whole of the British scientific community tummbling down.

    My basis for the belief stems I guess from my years spent working in scientific academia (albeit in a supporting role) – it’s an annecdotal thing admittedly, but it is at least a basis. Maybe I am wrong in this assertion and all science funding is wisely and efficiently allocated and all the research is unarguably justified, even at this time of wretched economic choices, It’s just that I doubt it.

    But the thing that annoys me about the conduct of thisdebate in certain quarters (particularly some of the coverage in the Guardian) is the implication that the scientific community should somehow be immune to such strictures. They’ve joined the arts lobby, the armed forces, middle income mothersand God knows who else in declaring themselves to be “the special case” – the area that deserves to be exempted from tough economic decisions. I suppose they’re not really to blame on this, it’s kind of their job to lobby for their own area of interest as best they can. But it’s Government’s job to say no, I’m afraid we are in fact all in this together.

  • George W. Potter 8th Oct '10 - 3:16pm

    This article is spot on. I’m studying to be an engineer – I want to stay in this country to work here and pay taxes to give back for all the help I’ve had from the state in growing up but I fear that if cuts to the science budget go ahead there won’t be the jobs in the UK anymore and I’ll be forced to leave the country to find employment.

  • I’m sure there is inefficiency in research spending and management, but I don’t think that is an argument to cut spending. Probably more an argument that researchers should be relieved of some of their bureaucratic and teaching duties and provided with better administrative support so they aren’t stretched so much.

    I don’t see how there is a parallel with the UK research community and “middle income mothers”, but the comparison with Arts-council funded projects is reasonable. The difference here is twofold: there is a stronger tradition of philanthropy in supporting arts projects (and projects usually generate revenue themselves through ticket sales) than in science and the success of real breakthrough science work often takes decades of sustained support and hard work, whereas plays, exhibitions and musical events can afford to not run in a tough year and then start up again when funds become available.

    The Wellcome Trust is a counterexample of a philanthropic organisation funding science research but, outside of medical research, there are few others.

    If you shut down a 20 year longitudinal cancer study for a couple of years in the middle, you will probably not have anything useful to work with. If you close down a nuclear fusion facility, I imagine it’s pretty hard to get up and running again, not to mention losing the concentration of expertise as those associated with the work move to other countries or other fields.

    Other countries in financial difficulty at this moment are increasing their R&D spending because they know it will pay off later. It’s indefensible for us to fall behind them.

  • It seems to me there is a very strange political mood in the country at the moment. Lots of people appear to see cuts as a good and desirable end in themselves, even if those cuts are to areas that actually generate more income than they cost. Significant cuts to our science base can only depress our ability to shrink the deficit. I wonder how long this
    weird, self-flagellating almost nihilistic mood is going to last.

  • I agree 100% with this article and, to be honest, I think that science is one of the very few special cases that definitely have to be immune from cuts – military spending, though it should not be cut immediately while we’re in Afghanistan, is already extremely high for a country of our size and stature in the world and arts funding, though definitely nice and something that should ideally be preserved, is ultimately just that – nice and nothing more.

    Science is a differnet kettle of fish, as William Cullerne Brown said, and I think it important to add that even the most esoteric, seemingly pointless and impractical research can yield dividends in practical and/or economical projects years down the line. For instance structural biology (though not my area of interest!) has yielded very little information with any real practical application as of yet but has the potential to revolutionise pharmacology by allowing rational drug design rather than the current method which relies quite a lot on serendipity and which could result in much lower costs for the pharmaceutical industry, a substantial part of the UK economy. But, at the moment, it’s pretty much an exercise in academia. I’m sure it is not the only field like this. The “impractical” research is exactly what should be funded by the government and cost-cutting in the sciences, to be honest, is quite difficult beyond what’s already been done – it is always expensive and there’s not much that can be done to get around that.

    Just to state my vested interests I am a masters student who does intend to move into the sciences at a career. However, I have a strong preference for working in industry on the “practical” projects so I am likely to be quite insulated by any cuts in government science spending. I just see cutting the funding for the “impractical” academic work that I don’t want to touch with a barge pole as very short sighted.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Oct '10 - 5:12pm

    “As I said above, though, 90% of Hefce funds are allocated to projects rated at 4* or 3*. If you cut only lower-rated research activity, you’d be able to make a maximum of 10% cuts, but you’d be putting 45% of Hefce-funded scientists out of a job: a huge human impact for a small percentage cut.”

    Sorry, but I think there’s a bit of confusion about HEFCE funding here. In fact I think what James Wilsdon wrote could have been more clearly worded. The HEFCE money is one component of government funding for universities, and part of it (“Quality Related Research Funding”) is allotted on the basis of the quality of the work which has been done in the past in each department, as evaluated in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The current formula can be found here – http://research.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2009/01/29/hefce-announces-rae-funding-formula/ – and it confirms that, as pointed out above, only an eleventh of the money is awarded on the basis of past research ranked 2* or below.

    But, if I understand correctly, Vince Cable was talking about a different type of government funding – funding awarded through the research councils for specific research projects to be done in the future. This is the funding that is so difficult to get hold of, even for research proposals that have been given a top rating after peer review.

    Where Cable went wrong was to assume that the RAE, which ranked only 54% of research in the top two classes, related only to work funded by the research councils. It doesn’t. It also relates to work funded from other sources – such as industry and charitable trusts – and also work done by academics in the course of their employment without any specific outside funding. I would expect the quality of the work funded by research councils to be much higher, considering how competitive the application process is.

    So, sorry, no T-shirt. Maybe just a lapel badge.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 8th Oct '10 - 5:23pm

    Painfully Liberal

    Perhaps I was a bit hasty. If you have worked in academia you’ve no doubt seen some pretty ropey research in progress. But I would hope that not much of it has been funded by the research councils.

    If we are talking about government funding through research councils – as Vince Cable was – then I don’t see what sense it makes to talk about “raising the bar,” because the bar is already so high that a lot of top-rating research doesn’t receive funding.

    Of course, whether science funding really is so indispensable that it should be immune from cuts is a different question. But if the argument is that spending should be cut because the government is currently funding large amounts of poor-quality research, then some strong evidence will be needed to back it up. Certainly something better than the regurgitation of some semi-digested statistics whose application turns out to be quite fallacious – which is what Vince Cable gave us before.

  • Patrick Smith 8th Oct '10 - 5:23pm

    British Universities must remain at the cutting edge of new scientific research and discovery,especially in the important areas of climate change studies,alternative energy technology and cures for AIDs and Cancer etc. The Russel Group members also seek that reserach remains internationally competitive and if this is so, than no doubt there will be Nobel Science winners from the UK.

    However,the innovation of science and reseach has to balanced with the price and quality of the offer made to the least off and part-time students, who are competing for places on higher education degree programmes with students often from better off families.

    Many prospective part-time students are clearly closely at their chances in the light of the position taken by the `Colaition Government’ on the responses to the Browne Report when known.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Oct '10 - 3:15pm

    In broad terms, I’d like to see more of the government’s budget directed towards research and civil engineering, and less towards bureaucracy. So I tend to support this sort of sentiment on that basis.

    But at the same time, I can’t defend the idea that research is more important than most of the other big-spending segments of the UK government. It shouldn’t receive more protection than health, welfare, public works, or education.

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