What must Britain do to retain its global scientific reputation in a changing world?
This evening at the Royal Society, various men of science, industry and politics gave us their opinion (“UK Research: Building Bridges, Building Prosperity”). These included the Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse.
Cable got the pesky idea of science funding out of the way right at the beginning, saying that the 2010 settlement had been relatively generous and he didn’t want money to feature in the ensuing discussion. A ripple went through the audience at this point, so I suppose I was not the only one who thought that this was a strange omission. How can you have a robust science base without robust investment?
His talk was interesting but didn’t cover any new ground. The most notable points included:
- The concept of “brain drain” should be rebranded as “brain circulation” – i.e. a good thing
- His department would be grateful for any feedback about outstanding problems with the visa system for scientists (so if anyone has any gripes, do please email them to his office)
- The UK needs to be more open about data sharing
- The new Defamation Bill in its current form adequately protects scientific freedom of speech (a point some consider debatable)
- Diversity in STEM is needed to make sure we have enough scientists. (I’m not convinced this statement is true – try finding a job in the current climate – but obviously I think there are many solid reasons for this goal, and we have a long way to go.)
I won’t cover the entire wide-ranging discussion that followed (Cable’s speech is available online), but I thought two of the comments from the floor were especially worth noting.
The first was a tweet from Evan Harris:
5 men on panel at Cable science speech at Royal Society & all 5 questions from men, 3 with beards #coulddobetter #rsvince #beardsnotkeyissue
(Plus a man each for the opening and closing remarks. Note, the seven men on stage were also all white and of a certain age.)
It was a little difficult to take all the serious diversity talk from such a vast array of suits with a straight face.
Second, Imran Khan of CaSE asked Cable whether, when our competitors were increasing funding for science, he still felt that the cash cut in real terms and direct cuts for capital spending had been a sound idea. In essence, quite remarkably, Cable replied that the science budget previously had been so generous that it could afford to take a hit. I am sure that most researchers here in the UK would not agree that the tiny proportion of GDP that we currently spend on science is truly that big. But more significantly, I think this gives us a clearer picture of the attitude that scientists will be up against as the next Spending Review looms on the horizon – does the government still think our budget can withstand more trimming?
If so, we have a fight on our hands.