The firework screamed upwards into the night sky and burst, with an almighty crack, into a vibrant spray of light and colour. Everyone looked up. Some people cheered. And then the murmur of conversation resumed.
Is that what happened with the Science is Vital campaign, which bloomed and boomed in the UK this past September and October? The campaign concentrated the arguments and ire of the science and engineering community on the Government in the run-up to the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) on 20th October and appears to have had a palpable impact in persuading the Lib-Con administration not to slash the science budget.
How did it happen, what did it really achieve and what residue has been left behind? We have had lively first person accounts about setting up the campaign from RIchard Grant and Della Thomas, who were both closely involved in the organising committee, a revealing examination of its online progression from Shane McCracken, and careful analyses of the CSR from Jenny Rohn, Evan Harris and CaSE director, Imran Khan.
Having waited a few days to reflect on the campaign, I wanted to give my own digest. The assimilation is still incomplete but what follows will have to do. It is very much a personal view — I have not had time to track down links to many of the blogs and articles that I absorbed during and after the campaign, so please feel free to take issue.
Looking back, it is clear that Vince Cable’s first major speech on science, delivered at Queen Mary College on 8th Sept, was the spark that lit the flame. It certainly inflamed me, by coupling an erratic and erroneous assessment of the quality of UK scientific research with ominous warnings that we were going to have to “achieve more with less”. Incensed and taking my cue from other bloggers, I responded with an article for the The Guardian, co-written with Evan Harris (who, I discovered, has a cooler head). We dismantled Cable’s sloppy analysis and reasserted the quality and value of UK science.
But Jenny Rohn’s response to Cable’s speech was more straight-forward and more courageous. It was a call to action:
“Let’s march on London! No more Doctor Nice Guy, no more hiding behind our work, no more just taking things lying down like we take everything else in our profession — poor job prospects, poor funding, low pay, poor life-work balance. If they are going to bleed us dry, we might as well try to do something before it’s too late. I reckon there are thousands of practicing scientists and their allies in the vicinity — let’s make some noise.”
And it struck home with dramatic speed. Within hours, a fledgling committee had signed up via the comments section of Jenny’s blog. A Facebook page appeared that night and the #scienceisvital tag swept all before it on Twitter. Within two weeks the Science is Vital web-site launched to gather petition signatures and announce plans for a rally in Westminster and a lobby of Parliament.
The ease with which we collected and coordinated support online was the key to the impact of a campaign that only had a few short weeks to get its act together: there were precisely 42 days between 8th September and 20th October. The sound of the ticking clock was always audible at our frenetic committee meetings.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the campaign sprang into life less that a week after the Science Online London 2010 conference (SOLO10) on 3-4 September, which was attended by almost all of the people who formed the SiV organising committee. The SOLO conferences are lively affairs even if they are largely unknown in the scientific community since the vast majority of scientists still eschew social media activities. One of the most memorable contributions this year was by Evan Harris, who urged scientists to get more political — on any issue where science informs our understanding of the complex choices facing society — and offered a few pointers on how to do so. Crucially, he emphasised that the purpose of lobbying is to get the attention of policy makers, an activity distinct from engaging the public on science.
His talk made great good sense to me but raised a few yelps of objection among the audience who, quite naturally for such a gathering, were very active on Twitter. Some insisted that lobbying and public engagement should go hand in hand; others protested that many scientists are simply too busy to take on the additional burden of political activity. Both are interesting viewpoints, but I was out of sympathy with them.
I suspect my views had been coloured by spending time in the previous year or so getting involved in the campaign to support Simon Singh in his libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association, demonstrating against valueless alternative medicines, attending debates on science funding organised by CaSE and the Westminster Skeptics and engaging with school-children. These activities had taken me out of the lab as never before. I found them fascinating, worthwhile and energising. I have been confirmed in the view that scientists, some of us at least, need to be more active in the public domain (a view reinforced by a coffee-time conversation at the conference with Alok Jha, who definitely thinks scientists should get out more).
I don’t remember that the Government’s threat to science funding was discussed much at SOLO10, though it had been a constant theme of all my encounters with scientific colleagues since the election. But I think the conference had dried the tinder so that when Cable came along with his ill-judged speech things were ready to catch fire.
The flames spread rapidly following Jenny’s initial call to arms. Jenny herself, and the small committee that nucleated in the response to her blog-post, were taken by surprise by the speed and overwhelmingly positive nature of the online response. Clearly, a nerve had been struck and the reflex of the whole community seemed to be to swing into action.
The use of the internet and social media (especially Twitter) was crucial in spreading the message and keeping supporters abreast of developments and reports of the campaign in blogs and mainstream media. But it was equally valuable in providing a conduit for morale-boosting, positive feedback to the organisers from the community of supporters. This helped to get the committee through many very stressful moments of uncertainty (the details of organising the rally in London proved particularly troublesome). This support came initially through comments on Twitter but later, once the SiV web-site had launched, via the rapid accumulation of signatures on the petition. Each threshold of the count was celebrated on Twitter, helping to build momentum. One thousand, two thousand, five thousand, ten thousand! The campaign was heady, breathless and exhausting. (For the record, making placards is back-breaking work that leaves a heavy deposit of spray-glue on your shoes).
Scattered among the energetic messages of support, there were a few nay-sayers. Many I spoke to in the flesh in those late September days to ask for support responded enthusiastically, but there were sometimes shrugs and murmured doubts that no campaign could deflect the Government from its oft repeated contention that cuts had to be made and the scientific community would have to play its part. Such negative reactions were frustrating but understandable, and perhaps reflects the erosion of self-confidence among scientists due to long years of government neglect.
Online there were other criticisms to contend with. Some felt the campaign should broaden to include the whole Higher Education sector. And that the Arts should be considered as important as the Sciences. There are good arguments for both these viewpoints, but the SiV campaign had a very specific origin in Cable’s barely veiled threat against UK science. We had learned our Harris lesson well and, given the extreme time pressures, felt it necessary to keep the focus on science funding.
Other matters were more trivial but still generated a surprising amount of heat. At the call for protesters who had lab coats to wear them to the demonstration — as an easy signature of the scientific community — the twittersphere took flight in a flutter of indignation. Some voiced concerns that lab-coats would make it too easy for the media to stereotype us as ‘boffins’. Others complained they didn’t wear lab-coats to do their science. Again, both are fair points to make in the long run, but the campaign team felt that the easy visual hook would earn valuable media exposure and, indeed, this proved to be the case.
A deeper concern was that the necessary focus on the economic case for science would make us hostages to fortune — that we were wrapping the constraining cords of ‘impact’ around our own hands and tying ourselves to a common Government view that science should always pay its way with technological advances that can be commercialised in the short-term. There had already been disquiet about the recent introduction of impact statements in grant applications to the Research Councils. Many feared, with good reason, that this would skew funding to more applied research, thereby discounting the value of curiosity-driven work, which retains an impressive track record of success if only you are prepared to look for it.
Although the campaign was careful to highlight the importance of blue-skies research (and of the wider economic benefits of public investment in the science base), the focus on the economic value of the science spend was necessary in the short time-frame available to us. For sure this economic focus comes at the cost of overlooking the importance of science as an important cultural activity, valuable by its own lights. And again, this is a worthy argument but it is a broad and long-term one. The immediate goal of the campaign was to change the mind of a Government fixated on balancing the books. We felt that arguments embracing all the likely benefits of science ran the risk of losing the attention of those who mattered: the men at the Treasury.
And so we rallyed outside their offices on 9th October where speaker after speaker and placard after placard drove home the message that cutting the science budget would be a counter-productive move for an economy that was struggling to recover from a crippling budget deficit. That was followed by the lobby of Parliament on 12th Oct and delivery of the petition — which then stood at almost 34,000 signatures — to 10 Downing on 14th Oct. Handing in the petition triggered an invitation to a meeting with science minister, David Willetts, who wanted to hear at first hand what had motivated this motley band of scientists and supporters to create so much noise. The message seemed to be getting through. Willetts and Cable had also, I gather privately, been taking readings from a wide spectrum of scientific opinion.
The news of the campaign’s success — if it can be called such — broke on the eve of the CSR announcement when it became known that the science budget would be frozen in real terms from 2010 to 2014 and ring-fenced within BIS (the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills). This was immediately met with a jubilant sigh of relief — Twitter is, if anything, a rapid-response medium — followed by a more temperate reception, acknowledging that a freeze in real terms means a slow erosion of the value of the Government’s investment in science over the next four years. We also had to be careful to recognise that many other areas of government spending, especially on welfare, were cut savagely. The news that sick and disabled people will lose benefits and support in order to balance the public spending budget took some of the shine off what appeared to be an unlikely escape for science. But we adhere to our case: spending on science should, over the long term, generate the economic benefits that pay for welfare and support services.
The news of the freeze was also tempered by the realisation that it only affects recurrent expenditure by BIS on research funding. There remain considerable uncertainties about capital expenditure (a concern for the physics community who are particularly dependent on large-scale facilities) and about the Government’s plans for university funding. The effect of the radical shift of funding from Government support to student tuition fees, which will be doubled or tripled, is yet to be determined. The future for Britain’s universities may well be bleak — it is certainly somewhat blank at present.
I got a sense of this while listening to David Willetts at the Science Question Time held at the Royal Institution last week (listen here or read Beck Smith’s report). I suspect the Government, in its haste to put together a spending review to tackle the huge UK deficit, has not had the time to gauge the integrated effect of its changes to the science and university budgets. For example, Willetts claimed that the likely 10% decline in the real value of the science budget could be significantly mitigated by efficiency savings. When I pointed out that university researchers now faced the double whammy of competing for declining research funds (in real terms) while coping with demands for more contact hours from undergraduates paying higher fees and couldn’t see where where those efficiency savings were going to come from, the answer was disappointing. He mentioned only the Government’s intention of reducing the burden of assessment on universities and grant holders.
That said, I still think he was listening. It’s clear from their success in putting their case to the Treasury that Cable and Willetts have taken the arguments for science on board. And though some of his answers at the Royal Institution were unable to fill in the anxious gaps in our view of the future, he did at least say that he would take the concerns of the panel and the audience back to his departmental colleagues.
What effect that has remains to be seen, but scientists should be keeping a close eye on BIS. It is still early days for this new administration. They have yet to be overtaken by events so it is to be hoped that the ministers will have the chance to deliberate a while longer on just how scientifically ambitious the UK wants to be. And into these policy debates (and other relevant areas of government activity), I hope that more scientists will be prepared to cast their views.
We cannot properly tell — since the experiment has only been done once — whether the Science is Vital campaign had a real impact on the Government’s final budgetary decisions. For what it’s worth, I incline to the view that it did. But more importantly, I hope that by raising the flag for science the campaign has caused some of our number to think more deeply about the societal worth of what they do and to recognise the value of stepping into the public domain. It certainly moved me to up my game and examine the economic case for science more closely, widening my reading choices to include Royal Society reports and academic analyses. The arguments are complex and the evidence for the benefits of public spending on science, though cumulatively powerful, lack quantitative precision. But grappling with this information made me better equipped to address these matters with my MP and the wider public. I’m sure the campaign had a similar effect on others.
There are risks associated with ‘going public’. The mantle of lobbyist is not one to be worn lightly since it will attract the suspicion of other interest groups, especially if the topics are controversial — as any climate scientist will tell you. The SiV campaign largely avoided such disputes by sticking resolutely to the single, well-supported argument that investment in science brings economic benefit. Future debates may be more contentious, but our resolve to act should hold.
Conversely, this sort of public engagement reflects back into the scientific domain. It is no bad thing for scientists to be prompted think about how our work connects with the preoccupations of Government and our fellow citizens, about how the research that we do is likely to benefit the people — mostly taxpayers — who fund it. Interactions in the public domain work both ways.
For now we might pause to recover from the intensity of recent weeks, but I am optimistic that those who got involved in supporting the Science is Vital campaign might be willing to come back for more and to help hold this Government’s science policy up for scrutiny. Science is on the political agenda as never before.
And now that we have figured out how to launch a noisy rocket, it should be easier next time around.