If you can’t march, write

I’m afraid I am not going to make it to the “Science is Vital” march on Saturday, so as a penance I have done two things today – spammed all my work colleagues (again) with an email exhorting them to sign up and to pass it on, and written to my MP.

The letter to my MP, who as a LibDem is a member of the governing coalition, is below. I’ve tried to mix the Science is Vital boilerplate with some stuff specific to my University, with the idea that this might concentrate the MP’s mind.

[Of course, he probably won’t read it, given its Austin-verbose length. But he might]


Dear John

I am one of your constituents. I am also a lecturer in Physiology at Manchester University. I would like to ask you to help us to preserve Britain’s science. Please could I ask you to :

– sign EDM 767 – Science is Vital
– sign the Science is Vital petition
– attend a lobby in Parliament on 12 October (15.30, Committee Room 10).

The evidence is abundant, and clear, that investing in scientific research brings a range of economic and social benefits. It is also clear that severe cuts at the very moment that our competitor nations are investing more could jeopardize the future of UK science. While I understand that the country’s economy is in a weak state, it seems clear to me – and to most commentators – that cuts to science and to Universities will actually harm the economy.

Heavy cuts in research will waste the investment already made in facilities and people. For instance, Manchester University has put a major investment into new bioscience research laboratories over the last 10 years. Parts of these buildings now lie empty, because staff have left and not been replaced, or because anticipated recruitments have not occurred as a direct consequence of the current financial uncertainty.

Cuts will hurt research. They will not eliminate waste. In my own field of bioscience research, competition for funding is fierce, and only one in six research proposals gets funded. All of the proposals funded, and a large numbers of the ones that are not, are rated internationally excellent.

The non-funded applications represent a vast burden in terms of the time spent preparing them. Cuts will only exacerbate this. In addition, academics are astonishingly thrifty with research funds, stretching them to help with the experiments of less well funded workers, like PhD students. There is no slack in the system that I can see. “Doing more with less” is not an option – because in the UK we already do more with less in science than in any other country, as all the available statistics clearly show.

A particular fear of mine is that the effects of cuts will be long-term; they will damage our ability to compete in science – and hence damage our wider economy that depends on science – for the next ten to twenty years.

Let me give you some Manchester-specific examples of why I think this is so, if we experience cuts on the sort of scale that has been widely trailed.

1. We will no longer be able to attract the best scientists here from outside the UK.

The recent award of the Nobel Physics Prize to Manchester University’s Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov brings this into sharp focus for me. Manchester was able to recruit these two outstanding physicists because of, as Royal Society President Martin Rees put it,  “the promise of adequate funding and a supportive environment in a first-rate university. “.

If funding is cut, this kind of thing will no longer be possible – and the first jobs to go will likely be those for younger scientists. This is because, when money is tight, Universities tend to concentrate on making small numbers of star Professorial appointments. But cutting junior appointments would mean that there is less chance of recruiting people like Professor Novoselov, who was barely 30 when he came to Manchester.

Even if special posts can be set up for “Star Professors”, these scientists are less likely to want to come to a country where the research funding prospects are bleak. Dame Nancy Rothwell, the President of Manchester University, gave two specific examples in her September 6th letter to Lord Krebs’ House of Lords Science & Technology Committee:

“Two individuals went most of the way through the appointment process for chairs (in one case all the way), but then withdrew because the financial packages were unsatisfactory. In one case, the main problem was funding of laboratory space and funding of unique transgenic rodent colonies. A better offer made and accepted in Switzerland. In the second case there were two issues: the personal remuneration was not equivalent in buying power to that currently received (particular issues were travel and housing) and the package did not incorporate sufficient dedicated laboratory and clinical space. “

2. Top-class non-British scientists currently working here will leave

Science is international, with movement of people across the globe. Looking round my own Faculty of Life Sciences, we have been able to appoint top-class tenure-track (academic) staff in the last five years from many nations, including the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, and Denmark. However, these people will soon be in a position where funding prospects for research in their countries of origin will be considerably better than in the UK. I predict that a significant number of these people will be tempted back to their countries of origin, and their skills lost to the UK, if severe cuts are imposed.

3. We will lose much of our own young talent to other countries with better science funding.

Professor Noveselov recently pointed out that “The impact [of cuts] is going to be that good scientists will go abroad, especially the young people.” Scientists of my age (late 40s) are aware of numerous contemporaries who left for other countries during the last period of prolonged austerity for British research in the 80s and never returned. In some cases (see 1. above) they wanted to return but have never been able to, since the UK cannot match the facilities and remuneration they enjoy overseas. Cuts will make this situation worse.

4. We will starve local high-tech industry of the talent pool it needs, both as workers and as collaborators

To give an example in my own field of biomedicine, I note that a significant part of the skilled (doctoral level and beyond) scientific workforce at AstraZeneca (AZ) Alderley Park was trained at Manchester University. Over my two decades at Manchester I have known literally dozens of PhD level scientists who have moved on from the University to work for AZ. These scientists have been trained using public money through the provision of PhD studentships and posts on competitively-awarded research grants. AZ have benefited from having this regular supply of locally-based highly skilled scientists anxious to work for them. However, this supply in the future is clearly likely to be reduced, while the supply of trained people in our competitor countries is likely to increase. Pharmaceutical disinvestment from UK-based R&D is highly likely if the UK science base is crippled with cuts. We have already seen companies like GlaxoSmithKline relocating research from the UK to China. It would be a tragedy for the North West of England if AZ were to choose to re-locate their research base away from Alderley Park.

In summary; cuts to science will do long-term damage to the science base, will waste investment already made in facilities and people, will damage the economy, and will be extremely difficult to repair even when things improve. To quote a line doing the rounds, cutting science to save the economy is rather like trying to lose weight by cutting off your own leg. The maintained or increased investment in science, technology and education in essentially all our competitor countries suggests they have grasped this.

The Science is Vital coalition, along with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, are calling upon the Government to set out a supportive strategy, including public investment goals above or at least in step with economic growth. Without such investment and commitment the UK risks its international reputation, its market share of high-tech manufacturing and services, the ability to respond to urgent and long-term national scientific challenges, and the economic recovery. It also risks decimating one of the sectors – science and education – in which we are truly are world-class. As I hope I have convinced you, this will be damaging both locally, and nationally.

I have signed the petition at


I urge you to do the same.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Austin Elliott

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Science policy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to If you can’t march, write

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    Aagh! I’m getting an error when I try to report the superflat spam.
    Evil spam, evil spam.

  2. Austin Elliott says:

    Have resorted to manually "flattening" the superflat spam.
    < /sigh >
    As others have said, it is rather irksome when a "Commenters MUST register and PLEASE use real name" set-up deters real commenters (probably) but doesn’t actually keep the Spambots out.

  3. Austin Elliott says:

    Also rather puzzled why the spam comments still show on the (global) Recent Comments page hours after they have been deleted… Lou…?

  4. Joanna Scott says:

    Thanks for flattening the spam, Austin. I’ve noticed the comments lingering in the Recent list as well and have logged it as a bug.

    Great letter – I can’t be there in person either, so any way to support it from afar is welcome. Unfortunately I suspect it will be futile in my case – my last contact with my Conservative local MP was in the spring when I wrote to her about the Digital Economy Bill and never received so much as a boilerplate reply, despite the upcoming election where she presumably wanted my support.

  5. Michael Taggart says:

    Hmm, I thought MPs were duty-bound to at least acknowledge written correspondence as long as it originates from a constituent.  Perhaps I am fortunate in having Alan Campbell as an MP.  He’s given a considered and positive response each of the three times I’ve contacted him re: sciency things – the latest when he promised to write to Willetts & Cable about their pronouncements about mediocre research. Mind you, it’s the next step that’s the problem; when you get ignorant supercillious responses from junior government ministers – in my case this was from Ann Keene in the last government.  I was glad to see she was booted out at the last election just because she clearly did not have an understanding in any sense of the role of research in health provision.   

    If you don”t get a response, I’d write again and ask why he rates the issue as one of low priority.  Indeed, maybe the SiV campaigners can keep a tally of which MPs have been contacted, who have responded (and not) and how – maybe even adding the responses to the webpage… 

  6. Åsa Karlström says:

    Michael brings up a  great point, it would be interesting to know who are responding and who are not.

    Austin, I don’t think it’s overly lengthy at all. Great letter! And I especially like the points Makes it easy to read and refer back to. (I thought about the Man U and Nobel prize too when I read it, especially since Novoselov is very young in the Nobel awards field…  Geim isn’t too old either with that as a comparison…. and yes, question is if that will happen if you cut funding that much?!)

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks, guys. 

    My MP (John Leech, Manchester Withington, LibDem) has always responded, though quicker on some things than others. He was commendably quick on libel reform, as I remember.  He has had quite a few emails from me now on this and that.

    I am pretty sure CaSE will be interested in hearing about MPs’ responses, and I would imagine Jenny et al. will be passing on names. Of course, this relies on people who have written individually to MPs reporting back to Science is Vital. I hope people who do write, and get a response (whether positive or negative)., make sure they feed it back. 

    Asa – yes, the Physics Laureates are very young, especially Novoselov – and also the time from the discovery (2004) to the Prize (2010) is unusually short. Typically it is much, much, longer – see e.g. the Prize this year for IVF, where it has been more than 30 years since the landmark paper (1978), and at least 20 years since the discovery had become a hot tip for the Nobel. Magnetic resonance imaging is another one where the wait for the Prize was weirdly long. 

  8. Joanna Scott says:

    Thanks, Michael – I was actually going to write to my MP again when the election was over to enquire whether she would now have time to consider my letter, but in the end it didn’t seem worth it.

    Very good idea to keep track of responses, although I’m always wary of scapegoating individuals (hence I haven’t named and shamed my MP, although there’s no love lost!), which I think can sometimes distract from the real issue.

Comments are closed.