In which I call my own bluff

It’s only been two weeks since I responded to some well-intentioned goading – “Why don’t scientists ever get involved in politics?” – and spontaneously decided to start a revolution. But it already seems like months. I am referring, of course, to Science Is Vital, the grassroots campaign that kicked into action following my call to arms, No more Dr Nice Guy. When I wrote that blog post, and soon after threw a hashtag into the maelstrom of Twitter, I had little idea that it truly would take off the way it did.

Since that day, we’ve entered into a wonderful coalition with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, are being advised by the redoubtable Evan Harris, and have expanded into a core organizational group of a dozen or so people. We’ve had more than 2,000 people sign up on Facebook, and our petition, which went live only a few hours ago, already has more than a thousand signatures.

I’ve had offers of help from so many people that – in my sleep-deprived state – it sometimes brings tears to my eyes: from web designers and coders to photographers and journalists – and even a samba band, keen to rally our troops for the Central London demonstration we aim to stage on the 9th of October. Before I even had a chance to, someone bought our web domain for us and set us up on their server. We’ve had coverage in the Telegraph, the New Scientist, Research Fortnightly, The Guardian, and Twitter is a-swarm with supportive re-tweets. An MP has put up an Early Day Motion on our behalf in Parliament . Within five minutes of sending a mailshot to university Deans across the country this afternoon, we’ve had people reporting back that our call-to-arms had been forwarded to department heads, and from thence cascaded to entire departments. We’ve heard tell of coaches being organized at far-flung universities to ferry students and staff down the rally. All of this, I am acutely aware, has been made possible by the miraculous power of social media: words cannot describe how awed I am by its power.

It hasn’t all been easy. Every one of the core group has been run ragged these past few weeks as we’ve struggled to get our campaign together – food, sleep and day jobs have all taken a back seat. We’ve been meeting in the Prince Arthur pub near Euston Station, a war cabinet replete with bowls of chips and pints of Spitfire. The 9th of October is ridiculously short notice, but our haste is entirely necessary: the Comprehensive Spending Review is on the 20th of October, and we want to make our voices heard before all the decisions are made. To facilitate this, we’ve got Committee Room 10 booked at Westminster for a lobby at 15.30 on the 12th of October – fuelled by a letter-writing campaign to ask as many MPs as possible to meet with us.

On a more somber note, we’ve now had first-hand experience with the rather ominous changes in approach that seem to be clamping down on a citizen’s right to assemble in the capital. The police gives lip service to their welcoming of peaceful protests and marches, yet have been relentlessly trying to herd us into stationary positions in backwater areas of London. Yesterday morning, one officer told us dourly that since “new regulations” have kicked in, not one group has decided that they could go ahead with a full-fledged march because of financial and liability concerns. (The recent Pope protest got permission before the clamp-down.) Yet when we sought legal advice on this warning, the expert in question thought that no laws had changed: were we actually just being fobbed off? It’s been nearly three months since the Peace Camp was evicted from Parliament Square, London’s most desirable site for public demonstrations, but I was unable to book it: the Greater London Authority informed me today that it is still being “repaired” and could be out of commission for “months more”. (For those of you who don’t know it, Parliament Square is essentially a large piece of grass. My university recently needed to re-turf half of its quad, and it only took about a week.) Is the government secretly happy that excuses like this, along with terrorism, are making it increasingly easy to deny people the right to make their voices heard, especially with the rise of unrest that cuts of all descriptions will eventually bring? I have no proof, but I’m starting to wonder.

But enough of the tribulations: the most important tidings I bring are of significant progress: we now have the infrastructure to ask you to help us. Visit our website, sign our petition, write to your MP, put the 9th of October at 2 PM into your diary, and the 12th if you want to meet your MP at the lobby. Spread the word. We need your help to get our message across: that science is vital to the economy, and worth fighting for.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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28 Responses to In which I call my own bluff

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

     I’m a little wary of blaming the government for this, actually. It was the previous (Labour) administration that brought in the outrageous laws that have crippled our rights (indeed duties) to free speech, and talking to Evan Harris it appears that legally, we should be OK. The police of course welcome anything that means they can stay inside and not deal with the likes of people like us, who believe that democracy is not a spectator sport.
    Anyway, yes, it’s been a blast this last couple of weeks. Hard work, but highly enjoyable. Thanks to you for kicking it all off.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I was only wildly speculating. But when I studied up for my Life In The UK test, a big deal was made of how the UK police have a right and duty to assist in public assembly as much as they can. The bloke that we talked too didn’t seem to have got the memo.

  3. Richard Wintle says:

    Well done, you lot (looking squarely at Jenny, while acknowledging the rest in the background, off to the side, on the fringes, and possiblly under the table at the Prince Arthur).
    I am doing my little piece by publicizing things where I can (and adding a very small amount of Google-Fu to Della’s university contact list, now deployed I <strike>see</strike> read). I justify this by remembering that although not a resident, I am in fact a Citizen of the <strike>British Empire</strike> UK, and even have the (expired, but whatever) passport to prove it. So I can’t really sign the petition (the postal code requirement is a problem, for one thing), and it’s not appropriate that I do so, but I think I’ve managed to recruit a few others.
    Social media and crowd-sourcing, as you say, is an amazing thing.
    I look forward to hearing about the "days of" and how this all plays out. Again, well done you lot.

  4. Richard Wintle says:

    Bloody strikeout markup’s not working. Stupid MT4, or 5 or whatever it is.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

     Yes, that’s my point Jenny—it’s the police playing hardball.
    Can’t wait to tell my grandkids, Winty. Over several pints.

  6. Della Thomas says:

    Jenny, where and how on Earth did you find the time to write this article today?  My inbox is full of your messages from throughout the whole day so I know how busy you’ve been – you truly are bionic!!

  7. Stephen Moss says:

    Jenny – I hope all this saving the science budget isn’t wrecking your scientific renaissance. Not sure how you juggle your time between actin dynamics and acting dynamic, but good to see the support and momentum building.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Della, I just hope my boss hasn’t noticed yet. <waves>
    Stephen Curry said I had to write something, and to be honest I felt the urge to get it off my chest. The thing about loving to write is that you never stop wanting to, no matter how tired you are. Somewhere in me is another blog post about how scientists really don’t have time to be political…but that’s another story for another time.
    Winty, we really appreciate your support. Sorry we had to restrict the postcode, but that’s the way it has to be.

  9. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, my chances of getting a job before the economic crisis were pretty bad, but the chances of getting a job with 20-40% cuts will be nil. So I reckoned – sod it. I might as well try to do something, even if it means sacrificing my own chances. Fortunately my boss is very supportive – and I am managing to get work done, as it’s mostly paper writing at this point.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    Ahem – I think all I actually did was to ask whether you were going to write something about the campaign on NN! 😉
    But well done for sparking the campaign to life – it is in rude good health at the moment (almost 1500 signatures now) but will need energetic nurturing over the next couple of weeks.
    BTW, re your previous post, I will note only that I am very happy to be part of an enterprise led by an enterprising woman!

  11. Richard Wintle says:

    Glad to be of (minor) help, Jenny. And restricting the postcode was a very strategic move – if it filled up with e-signatures from all over the world it would lose impact. Having it signed by those in the UK (i.e. those who will feel the effects) gives it more impact, certainly.
    Sorry, just stating the bleedin’ obvious again I guess.
    I shall continue to rattle my saber from afar.

  12. Bob O'Hara says:

    the Greater London Authority informed me today that it is still being "repaired" and could be out of commission for "months more". (For those of you who don’t know it, Parliament Square is essentially a large piece of grass. My university recently needed to re-turf half of its quad, and it only took about a week.)

    My guess is that they want the grass to grow deep enough roots to sustain itself from repeated tramplings. Let a bunch of scientists loose on it, and the turf will be kicked up in no time.  And then someone will start looking for creepy-crawlies in the soil, and in no time half the demonstration will be scrabbling around in the dirt looking for cool grubs. I don’t think you want that.

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha! A very nice image.

  14. Mike Fowler says:

    Unfortunately, I’m with Winty on citizenship but no postcode territory. And I don’t even live in one of HM’s Dominions (or is that D’oh! Minions). But, I’ll get my brain in action as to how to engage others in the UK who don’t yet know about this campaign.
    <footballchant>We’ll support you eveeermoooooore</footballchant>

  15. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Mike, ’tis much appreciated. If you are eligible to vote in the UK by absentee ballot, can’t you use the postcode of the constituency in which you’re registered? I would have thought that was above-board (Although taking advice from a Yank on this might be ill-advised…)

  16. Mike Fowler says:

    Jenny, sorry, I don’t think I’m even registered for an postal/absentee vote. I looked into it before the last election, but the necessary requirements and a screaming infant distracted me.
    I thought about just signing the petition with an old UK postcode of mine anyway, but didn’t want to put its legitemacy at any risk. Maybe now’s the time to re-examine how to register!
    But I have started spreading the word in some old stamping grounds already.

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Great, thanks for your support! I just wrote a letter to Simon Hughes, my local MP, and it felt really good.

  18. Imran Khan says:

    Thanks Jenny – CaSE is really pleased to be helping. But I’d add that none of this would have been possible without Shane McCracken and Matt Brealy – they’ve been phenomenal – and of course you for setting the whole thing in train.

  19. Åsa Karlström says:

    Wow, Jenny! This has been – IS – such an impressive campain and such a great thing!And very inspiring! I am looking forward hearing about the rally and so far, it seems like the time is enough.
    I know it’s short time, but then again isn’t it always short time when you need to get people to take action and do something?
    (Since I’m lacking UK passport or postcode, no signing for me, but I’ll be in contact with some people I know who are in the area though and spread the word)

  20. Austin Elliott says:

    Perhaps expat Brits and other sympathisers with sci press / media connections could aid the cause by trying to interest their own local media in "Will there be a brain drain from the UK?" stories. The US must have plenty of Brit scientists who departed in the 80s brain drain and are still there, so you have a "Will it happen again?" angle.
    Or there are the people who might have migrated into the UK over the last decade or so who might now be "reverse draining". For instance, the UK acquired several high-profile American stem cell people during the Dubya years, and there was much talk that they would all be heading back across the Atlantic (at least until the recent US court decision).
    On the same lines, the Faculty (PI population, that is) at my place has got much more international in the last decade – I can think of Americans, French, Germans, Danes, Italians, Japanese and sundry East Europeans. If UK science funding and UK Univs are going to be sliding down the pan as the funding is slashed, I would predict those people will be the first ones out the door back to their native countries, in many of which the environment for research will now be less bleak than in the UK.
    While PI jobs are not easy to get in the other countries, it is likelier going to be easier if you already have a PI post -partly because, if such people have been successful in the UK grant getting dog-fight, they are typically assumed to be capable of succeeding in the funding chase in other countries.

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  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks Imran – you’re quite right to point out Shane and Matt. I wrote this post very late at night on significant sleep-debt – but the link to our people page in the post gives credit to the entire team.
    Austin, do you really think the government cares if foreign PIs (i.e. "immigrants taking jobs from Brits and using our public services") leave the UK, high-flying though they may be? I’d like to think so, but am not sure.
    Thanks for your kind words, Asa. Spreading the word to your eligible UK friends will make a big difference.

  23. Austin Elliott says:

     "Austin, do you really think the government cares if foreign PIs (i.e. "immigrants taking jobs from Brits and using our public services") leave the UK, high-flying though they may be? I’d like to think so, but am not sure."
    I think Govts are sensitive to the idea (or at least the appearance thereof) that "British science is so good that we attract the best here from all over the world", which plays well spin-wise in all their self-congratulation about how brilliantly they manage science funding to foster (yawn) "excellence",
    So if these "brightest and best" start leaving – I think it does have an impact,, as it undercuts their spin. You cannot really argue when people vote with their feet. 

  24. Dr Cat says:

    Hi Jenny,
    As a relatively new "Brit abroad" I’ve been following the campaign with interest.  Hope I haven’t messed up the petition, but I wanted to sign so much I put my US zip code in the postcode box, and it let me… (though I am still an overseas voter and a UK citizen, so still feel my wishes should count!)
    I wanted to make the point that the UK taxpayer has thus far paid for my entire education, and I left at the age of 26 having contributed less than tuppence ha’penny to the Treasury.  If science funding is slashed, I may not be able to return home for my next job and (finally) start paying my taxes, as has been my plan up to now.  I don’t want a couple of years’ international experience to turn me into a "brain drain" statistic.

  25. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Dr Cat, I don’t understand how the form let you proceed with a US zip code, but I can’t help admiring your enthusiasm.
    Austin, I see your point, but can’t see how that factor could trump any number of other factors that might be deemed closer to "the bottom line". At the end of the day there are a legion of postion-less scientists willing and able to take the place of any departed luminaries, such is the current glut. Hard to flounce from a room when you aren’t, truly, dispensable.

  26. Stephen Curry says:

     Jenny – I think the UK science base derives a large part of its strength from what has been — up to now — an open door policy. The UK contrasts well with other European countries in this regard. The free flow of talent bring scientists in from abroad brings excellent scientists (such as yourself!) to our shores; but it also keeps home-based applicants for positions (at all levels) on their toes. Moreover, I think it encourages UK scientists to seek training abroad, by inculcating a strong sense of the international nature of science.
    This point was made by Martin Rees and the VCs at their recent press conference. If the UK becomes an unattractive option for overseas scientists due either to savage cuts or caps on immigration, the knock-on effect will be enormous. 

  27. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Of course I hope that the government recognizes this. I just wonder if making a point that involves pro-immigrantion is the most politically savvy thing to do…

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