On Saturday the 9th of October, over 2,000 scientists and science supporters will rally at Westminster to protect the future of British science. Their aim is to make the government reconsider any spending cuts to be made in the fields of research and development, cuts that scientists fear could cause the country long-term damage.
They are rapidly running out of time to make their voices heard, however, if they hope to influence Chancellor George Osborne’s Governmental Spending Review, which will be publically announced on the 20th. The cuts detailed on that day will certainly be draconian and decisive - but nobody as yet knows where they will fall.
It is in this tense atmosphere that on the 8th of September Lib Dem cabinet member Vince Cable delivered a speech at Queen Mary, University of London. In it, the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) made it clear that deep cuts in his department were unavoidable.
Since the Chancellor’s emergency budget was revealed in June of this year, government departments have been agonising over how best to apportion the enormous spending cuts that need to be made. In what Whitehall sources have referred to as ‘a do-able nightmare’, the Treasury hopes to cut public spending by £6.2 billion over the coming year.
If the load were to be divided equally among all 16 governmental departments, then each minister would need to reduce their budget by around 15%. The Coalition’s priorities, however, mean that some departments are more heavily hit than others. The NHS budget, for instance, will be protected in full, and some defence spending is also exempt.
This means that the reduction in spending expected from departments such as Vince Cable’s will rise to nearly 25% over a four-year period. And as Cable’s department bears responsibility for science as well as for business, scientists have been anxiously scrutinising his priorities in an attempt to predict what lies in store for them.
They got a glimpse of the answer when he stepped up to speak at the Queen Mary BioEnterprises Innovation Centre. In a speech more memorable for the questions it left unanswered than for any definite proposals it contained, Vince Cable succeeded in sending shockwaves through the scientific establishment.
Perhaps the most memorable phrase (one of several leaked to the BBC and the Guardian on the previous night) came with his assertion that he supports “top class ‘blue skies’ research, but there is no justification for taxpayers’ money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”
Science supporters across the board have come out against this comment, which they feel is indicative of a worryingly ‘short-termist’ view of the benefits of scientific research. According to a 2008 report by by Brunel University, every pound invested into medical research yields an annual return of 30p in perpetuity. This is a message echoed by the 2010 OECD report on innovation in times of austerity, which stressed that “cutting innovation provides short-term relief but damages long-term growth.”
Others have criticised Vince Cable’s description of 45% of publicly-funded research as "mediocre". Robert May, formerly Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government as well as President of the Royal Society, points out that for a country with barely 1% of the global population to produce 8% of the scientific publications and receive 12% of the associated citations is no mean feat. In relation to net wealth, the UK comes top out of the G8 countries in terms of the number of papers published annually.
The worry among scientists today is that this privileged position at the forefront of international research may well be slipping away.
The Royal Society made it clear in their submission to the Treasury that any cut in funding made today would ripple out and have a significantly larger impact in the long term. In their words, a cut of over 20% would represent a ‘game over’ scenario.
The nightmare situation would see Britain undergoing a ‘brain drain’, in which all the leading researchers and academics leave the country in search of greener pastures abroad. As can be seen from reports published by the UK’s top six universities, this scenario is dangerously close to materialising.
If the £3.5 billion science budget were to drop by nearly a billion pounds, then the UK would also need to reconsider its commitments to expensive, large-scale research projects. The Diamond Light Source and Isis, two Oxfordshire-based projects that respectively cost £28m and £35m a year to run, would almost certainly need to be put on hold. Professor Brian Cox, one of the UK’s better-known science broadcasters, has compared the mothballing of either of these projects to acts of "vandalism", which “would irreparably damage physics in the UK at all levels”.
In an attempt to protest against any such drastic measures, a group of concerned scientists and science supporters have spent the last month setting up the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign. Led and supported by a range of individuals from former Imperial rector Sir Roy Anderson to renowned astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, the group hopes to open the government’s eyes to the benefits associated with investment in the sciences.
They cite the unprecedented funding being awarded to research and development by the governments of India, China, France and Germany, many of whom are doing so at times of national stringency in other fields. France, for instance, will be investing €35 billion in research while at the same time cutting defence spending by nearly €5 billion.
All this raises the legitimate question as to whether or not the government has set the country on the right course to emerge from these difficult economic times. To take an example from recent history, both Finland and South Korea used science investment as a powerful engine to take them out of the perilous waters of recession they had sailed into in the 1990s.
On the 9th of October, the Science is Vital campaigners will be meeting in Westminster to protest outside the Treasury building. Inside, Chancellor George Osborne has been tasked with cutting Britain’s deficit with the help of the only governmental department that has no scientific advisor.
If Osborne decides to come into work on the Saturday in question, it might be worth his while to open the window. The advice he hears may prevent him from making the biggest mistake of his career - and it won’t cost him a thing.