This week saw the delivery of a funeral wreath and coffin to the Houses of Parliament. Why? Because a new grouping called Science for the Future decided to declare to MP’s the ‘death’ of British science. Actually what they were really complaining about was the way the EPSRC has been acting recently which, they claim, is mismanaging science funding to the extent that they would rather see their budget cut than continue as things are. Not everyone agrees with their actions. I’d like to explain why I, for one, am opposed to what they did in the way that they did it. Much of the background can be found on Pursestringtheory blog (with an extensive comment stream) so, for readers who haven’t been following the story, more detail can be found there, as well as commentary from Mark Henderson here and a thoughtful retrospective here.
I am no apologist for the EPSRC. Indeed I am sure that they have upon repeated occasions found me to be a thorn in their side, so it is all the more surprising to me both to find myself reacting so angrily to Science for the Future’s actions, and to get encouraging tweets from senior managers at EPSRC on the basis of comments I have made. I once spent an entire formal dinner haranguing Dave Delpy – EPSRC’s CEO – for their policy towards the sort of interdisciplinary research I do. He was gracious about it, but I doubt I got him to change his mind one jot. Such dialogue – tending to argument – between me and many others in the EPSRC team about the problems I perceive, particularly for work at the physics-biology interface, has been ongoing and visible for many years. Dialogue has been both semi-private – as at the dinner – and (relatively) public, for instance in meetings at the IOP’s Standing Committee for Physics Professors. As I say, I am no apologist for EPSRC.
But to return to Tuesday’s actions. The EPSRC, let us remember, does not cover all of UK science, it is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The biomedics, the astronomers and geneticists, the environmentalists and many others do not get their funding from the EPSRC in the main. So, for starters, Science for the Future is making an overstated claim when it says that the EPSRC is responsible for the death of ‘science’. Even if one agrees that the EPSRC is damaging those bits of science they fund, let’s not encourage excessive and exaggerated claims, thereby muddying the waters about funding for everyone. However, as far as I can judge, much of the group’s actions/words are in this same overly dramatic vein. Stalin seems to have got invoked at some point as a point of comparison, which is not only inaccurate but pretty offensive. Why is it necessary to use such hyperbole, a point other commenters have made (see Mark Henderson’s commentary in the Guardian, or Richard Jones’ comment on the PurseStringTheory blog)?
Around 100 people accompanied the funeral procession to Parliament, with apparently a diverse bunch of concerns ranging from disagreement with the recent Shaping Capability decisions (particularly as it affects synthetic chemistry), to the requirement that all applicants for grants consider their potential ‘impact’. This latter point is one that Philip Moriarty in particular takes grave exception to, and he has been waging war on it since its introduction (see here for previous discussion between him and me on this topic). In general I may feel that much of what EPSRC has done recently has been badly handled, and that more robust mechanisms for consultation with and challenge from their community could only be a good thing. I would like to be more convinced that their Council thoroughly think through and challenge all decisions before they are released onto the community. But I fervently believe that taking disagreements to the politicians in this histrionic way can only be harmful: for science, for scientists and hence for the future of the country – since, by implication, we all believe science is vital for our country’s economic and social well-being (as Science is Vital so abundantly and successfully made clear in the run up to the last CSR). I do not believe (to use a legal phrase) this is a ‘proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim’, however laudable some of these aims may be. My objection does not equate to wanting to issue a gagging order about public debate; it is simply that using up an occasion of engaging politicians for a stunt rather than for a reasoned presentation of a broad swathe of issues backed by a significant fraction of the community seems, at the very least, to be unhelpful.
Politicians are not, by and large, scientifically expert (with the notable of my own MP and erstwhile academic colleague in Cambridge Julian Huppert). By and large they don’t think about science very much, and they are hardly likely to appreciate the nuances underlying this week’s demonstrations. Nuances such as the fact the ‘science’ they claim to represent only covers a section of all science, and that their organisation – with its turnout only 5% of the size of the Science is Vital demonstration in 2010 – is not demonstrably representative of the community they claim to stand for. As far as I can tell the group’s primary aim is to bring down Dave Delpy and the senior management at EPSRC, but perhaps there is something more subtle they are aspiring to. Has Science for the Future attempted to establish how many people agree with these aims? I’d like to see the evidence if so. I, for one, would have felt far more in tune with the organisation if they had simply been content to draw up and make a presentation of a petition to our politicians in place of the horse-drawn carriage, which would have had the added benefit of enabling everyone to know how many scientists wanted to sign up with Science for the Future and its goals. As Mark Henderson’s recently published book Geek Manifesto so strongly states, and as Adam Smith in his commentary in the Guardian says in agreement, scientists should stand up and make their voices count and not be afraid of policy and politicians. But, as anyone who has got engaged with trying to effect a change in policy (in government or elsewhere) knows, there are good and bad ways of setting out to achieve this.
Philip Moriarty has challenged me what I think can be done, if not advancing on Parliament. Specifically he has said
Is your response that, regardless of what flaws we see in the research councils, we should keep our heads well below the parapet and not ‘rock the boat’?
As far as I can tell what he means by this is that anything short of publicly drawing attention to his complaints by something like the stunt of a coffin at Parliament equates to doing nothing. I think the world is full of far more gradations than this seems to imply. He seems to think it makes the actions of me and those of my ilk who think other routes more constructive, ‘supine’ and ‘unethical’, to use his terms. It is not sufficient for those of us more pragmatic beings to talk to EPSRC officials both ‘behind closed doors’ and publicly at the many events the EPSRC have held, where their managers have tried to put across the justifications for their actions in the face of widespread anxiety and even anger from the community. Furthermore, leaders of the Royal Society and relevant professional bodies have written in no uncertain terms to the EPSRC expressing unease about some of the things that have been done – again actions very much in the public domain. These events have hardly amounted to individuals lurking beneath parapets or making sure the boat does not judder more than a little. I simply cannot understand why Philip Moriarty thinks that because people like myself believe tackling politicians at this stage, with as little across-the-board support as this week’s event mustered, is the same thing as being (again to quote remarks specifically addressed to me by him)
seemingly happy that the character of basic scientific research in UK universities can be eroded, as long as the cash keeps flowing
with the added corollary that he believes what the ESPRC are doing is equivalent to eroding the scientific method. It would seem that those of us who are unhappy with dramatic media-visible exploits are to be deemed as implicitly spineless and content to see public money ‘squandered’ simply because we disagree with the specific actions we saw this week.
My primary objection to the course of action this group chose to take is that by so doing they have weakened the position of all scientists in taking their legitimate and broad concerns about science funding to politicians. They have acted so as to spread confusion amongst the MPs who lack specialist knowledge about what the fundamental issues are, regarding who is unhappy and about what. There is a vast difference between specific concerns about some (not even all) actions of one research council, and holistic concerns about the whole way science is funded in this ‘time of austerity’. Nobody is suggesting Science for the Future should be muzzled, let alone that speaking out in public is inherently a bad thing, but tackling Parliament should be saved for the largest issues when there is a consensus of opinion to back up claims. Science is Vital demonstrated this last time, when their message was heard loud and clear by David Willetts and colleagues, and that – coupled with many other positive and constructive actions such as the timely publication of Royal Society’s Scientific Century report – led to a less than catastrophic CSR for science.
What worries me about the way the event and subsequent debate has emerged is that we are in danger of squabbling over the detail, however important, not concentrating on the big picture (and I do not intend on this blog to get drawn into the specifics of whether this or that area should be funded, or whether the whole idea of impact is equivalent to the devil incarnate ). I would urge Science for the Future to consider how representative they are of the whole of the EPSRC community, before they purport to act on our collective behalf by producing grandstanding exaggerated statements in order to gain publicity in the media. That so many of the signatories to the recent letter to the Telegraph, however illustrious they may be, live beyond the UK’s shores hardly demonstrates representation, nor confers confidence that all of them – just like the MPs – are really able to appreciate the nuances of the issues. I would like the organisation to think whether using up a rare chance to engage politicians on a relatively narrow – albeit important – issue is the best way of promoting the science they love so much. And to justify to people like me, who were not satisfied by their action, why they feel existing action groups with a well-established and trusted political pedigree such as CaSE (I’ll admit to a potential conflict of interest here, since I am a member of their Advisory Council), or a demonstrable effectiveness plus widespread grassroots support, such as Science is Vital, are insufficient to further the aims of putting the case for science funding and its appropriate management.
In the meantime they should think much harder about the damage that may be consequent on their actions by introducing unnecessary and confusing divisions in order to further a course of action that smacks of witch hunting against Dave Delpy personally, and which has seen unattractive invective directed at other individuals who have expressed unease and opposition to their actions. They need to recognize that disagreement in others does not imply that we are all lying on our backs doing nothing, happy to ignore misguided actions by looking the other way. It merely means not everyone will applaud stunts which are counterproductive or think that confrontation is helpful just because more civilised routes have failed. Maybe they should even understand that shouting long and hard about particular policies, long after fellow scientists have listened and turned away, whilst simultaneously accepting EPSRC funding in large swathes, isn’t a very coherent stance nor one likely to have productive outcomes. They remind me of British travellers overseas who think shouting louder in English will make locals understand them better – and they are about as likely to succeed.