A spokesperson for Vladimir Putin recently mocked the United Kingdom for being a “small island” to which no one paid any heed. He is clearly not familiar with the UK’s impressive scientific reputation on the world stage: with just 1% of the world’s population and 3% of global public spending on science, we publish 8% of the world’s papers and rack up 12% of citations. We do disproportionately well with Nobel Prizes as well. (Needless to say, Russia eats our dust: with three times the population, they have 2% of publications and 0.9% of citations.) In addition to bringing societal benefits such as useful technology and cures for diseases, a strong research base helps fuel innovation, and many believe that a robust R&D agenda is crucial for economic growth.
The current UK government has frequently expressed its commitment to science funding, although this commitment, since 2010, has not equated to investing enough to offset the heavy erosion of inflation. But I sometimes wonder how much the Coalition really and truly believes in science’s importance. For example, I thought it was quite telling that, after Putin’s “small island” jab, David Cameron’s rapturous defence of the UK’s excellence encompassed a broad range of assets – from our music, art, philosophy and literature to our military, sport and even our diplomats – but utterly failed to mention science. A conspicuous absence, and evidence, perhaps, that despite its various sound bites to the contrary, the government has not truly internalized science’s worth or importance at any meaningful level.
I’ll be honest with you, dear readers. I’m rather alarmed at the recent news leak out of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills this past Friday, and a little angry too. My fellow Occam’s Typist, Stephen Curry, has a nice summary up today at the Guardian, but briefly, BIS has miscalculated on its budget and is considering making up the slack by reneging on its promise to ring-fence the research budget through to 2016 and raiding it for £215m.
It’s completely unclear when the final decision will be made, and therefore how much time we, as scientists or pro-science citizens, have to react. Such off-piste budgetary adjustments are uncharted territory for Science is Vital, the grassroots campaign group I chair. Like everyone else, we assumed the next battleground would be in the run-up to the general election, trying to persuade each party to put investment in research at the heart of their manifestos. We thought there was plenty of time to prepare ourselves for what would likely be a challenging exercise.
We were wrong. But it may not be too late to act. Please spread the word, follow the news at Science is Vital, attend our AGM, write your MP – and just generally, don’t let us take this lying down. The real-term cuts are already biting – another 2% could be devastating.
Note: The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of Science is Vital