The government is worried about the economy and rightly so. It’s in a bit of a state.
When Value Added Tax was raised by 2.5% to 20% at the turn of the year, there were nervous glances to see what impact it might have on consumer confidence. The VAT increase was probably carefully calculated to ensure that people out shopping would not be deterred from their purchases, so that the consumption merry-go-round would keep on turning.
The government’s concern for the economy is also behind its reluctance to bite the hand of bankers, who are awarding themselves generous bonuses just as the rest of the country public is beginning to feel the pain of spending cuts brought on by their failures. Banking is important so we all have to pay. Despite the massive problems in caused by the banking sector in the past couple of years, it is considered vital for the health of the economy that bankers — and other industrialists — remain confident that the UK is a good place to do business and to make money.
It may be galling but there is probably a lot of truth in this*.
Without confidence, there is no future. It’s not worth investing or planning or working if you can’t be sure that you will get a decent return. That much is obvious but, as a scientist, I couldn’t help being a little envious of the concern the government so obviously feels about the confidence levels of consumers, bankers and industrialists.
Perhaps I’m being over-simplistic, but the message to scientists seems to be of an entirely different tone. Scientists in the UK must learn to do “more with less” in Vince Cable’s famous phrase. With funding levels dipping below 20% and likely to fall further as the value of the UK science spend declines in real terms, more and more scientists can expect to feel the pain and frustration of failure. The mood among my colleagues, leavened temporarily by the realisation that the cuts to the science budget were not as great as feared, remains grim. Confidence is slipping and, with each rejected grant proposal, it is only going to get harder to galvanise yourself to re-apply. Many of us are trying to balance teaching and research workloads, but I haven’t met anyone lately who claims to have achieved a sense of equilibrium.
Oddly, while the sin of mediocrity is easily forgiven (if not rewarded) in banking, scientists are being held to a different standard. It is of course quite right that applications for public funding of science are sifted rigorously — there is never a case for mediocrity (and of course many businesses feel the heat of competition every day) — but it is important also to ensure that the system works, and that the people within it have the confidence to carry on.
The government may be fretting about the confidence of consumers and bankers but I suspect their concern for the confidence of scientists is less intensely felt, and it is therefore in danger of ebbing away.
Confidence building has to work at many different levels (as recent posts by Athene and Jenny have made clear). The government might argue that the settlement achieved in the Comprehensive Spending Review was a solid vote of confidence in science. But I am thinking more of the scientific community. The Research Councils set themselves strategic priorities to address the nation’s technical ills — food security and ageing are two identified by the BBSRC for example — but why not make building the confidence of the scientific community a strategic goal? What measures might they take to help ensure continuity of funding in labs trying to negotiate the poker tables of the funding process (set to become even more tense in the life sciences now that the Wellcome Trust has decided to concentrate funding on fewer individuals).
But we should also be able to help ourselves. Staff support is important at faculty and departmental levels in our universities (though I suspect provision is uneven). In turn, lab-heads have a duty to support the people working with them, not just through technical training but with positive encouragement. I’m not sure how good I have been at this myself over the years, but I think I’m learning.
And as a community of scientists we can support each other more informally. I have often felt boosted in meetings and at conferences by the friendly nature of our shared interest in making sense of the world; the same is true — though the effect is somehow not as intense — of connections made through blogs and other social media. Across the country and across the world scientists are feeling the stress and pain of hard economic times. At the moment we may be in the gutter, but if we find ways to stick together, we can be more confident of glimpsing a hopeful star**.
*I am no economist – happy to be taken to task for the shallowness of my analysis.
**Apologies to Oscar Wilde.