I almost don’t feel I can comment -but of course I am going to anyway.
Today I watched, or rather half-watched via twitter and other media outlets, the protest about
‘the death of British science’.
The protesters, about 100 strong, according to the BBC website, are objecting to the the priority they feel has been given to industry related science over basic science. They have specifically targeted the EPSRC (the Engineering and Science Research Council) for this sin.
The EPSRC disagree with the protesters claims and issued what I thought was a very positive press release about maintaining the UK as a scientific world-leader. James Wilsdon from SPRU (University of Sussex) called for ‘research communities to unite than indulge in self-interested bickering‘. Mark Henderson, after a well-deserved shout out to Jenny Rohn for starting up Science is Vital, argued that this protest might actually hurt government science spending because it could imply ‘that a research council cannot be trusted to spend its money wisely’.
For the record, I should point out that I am currently funded by the EPSRC. I should also point out that I am not funded in one of their strategic priority areas, at least under the remit I was funded from.
In some ways I agree with the over-arching theme of the protesters. I DO think we should fund basic science but I also believe the government has to fund some industrial science too. I think most academic scientists in the UK largely agree. Five minutes on the UK science blogosphere certainly supports this view, not to mention there is already action group which has established itself in 2010 to address scientific funding issues – Science is Vital.
On the other hand I am not sure this isn’t a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Everyone that I have interacted with at EPSRC has been very positive (and worried) about what is going on with funding cuts – they are, after all, the people having to administer these cuts. I am not saying I unilaterally agree with all of their decisions, but in my experience they are available for a dialogue about these issues.
From watching Twitter, there were varied degrees of distaste – as well as deafening silence – from the usual science research supporters on the ‘Death of British science’. I personally found it all a bit puzzling as I was confused, really, about what exactly the protesters were protesting.
It rather left me with many questions that maybe the protesters can help answer.
1 – Are you protesting government spending cuts to the research councils? or the EPSRC?
2 – Do you have statistics (real data) on how funding is currently split by EPSRC? Did you collate this data?
3 – Did you try to coordinate with Science is Vital – who could possibly help you think of ways to move forward when discussing with the EPSRC?
4 – Did you try to contact the EPSRC and set up a meeting?
5 – Why do you feel the need to invoke Stalin? I understand you are in fear of the ‘death of science’ but Stalin killed real people, which is much worse than spending cuts on anything. Do you know that much about science in Soviet Russia? I personally don’t but I do not think comparisons like this are particularly helpful, why do you?
I think I am not alone in my confusion. I had a non-academic friend phone me up today to ask me what it was all about. This is in contrast to Science is Vital where it was pretty clear to everyone. The point of a public protest is to make abundantly clear what it is you are protesting.
I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned about research council funding decisions, in fact as fundees it is almost a duty to be concerned, but I am not sure a protest was warranted in this case. I also want to clearly state I am not being sarcastic, these are genuine questions I want to ask. As my Department Head said in a recent staff meeting, “we have to think about how to move forward in this rocky funding landscape” and the ‘Death of British Science’ protest didn’t seem to be a move forward to me.