Science is Vital: Perturbation Theory and Practice

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.

Science is VItal - finale

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 RohnEvan 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.

Science is Vital Lobby - Speakers

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.

Science Question Time at the RI

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.

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44 Responses to Science is Vital: Perturbation Theory and Practice

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

     Yes. We’re thinking about the next step. You got the email about a regroup meeting?

  2. Stephen Curry says:

     Yes I did – am interested to see where this journey ends…

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

     I can’t see it ending any time soon. Still got my eyes on the map, though.

  4. Jamieson Christie says:

    Thanks for an interesting overview, Stephen.
    One thing I particularly liked about the campaign was that it was not party-political.  I assume that this was a deliberate decision?  I think it would have been easy to launch a lazy campaign against ‘Tory cuts’, but I think this would have risked alienating lots of people, and detracted from the overall message: science *is* vital, whichever party/ies happens to be governing.
    With regard to criticism, you are never going to be able to set up a campaign that 100% of people agree with 100% of the time.  But conversely, we didn’t have to agree with every single facet of the campaign to sign the petition, protest, or lobby Parliament (which I did all of, without once wearing a lab coat).

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

     Yes, it was a very deliberate (and sometimes difficult…) decision to not be partisan. That was also part of the reason we couldn’t support other protest movements (and indeed got a little uncomfortable at support from the unions!)

  6. Jenny Woods says:

    Really great article – and agree with your analysis of the amazing solo10 meeting being part of the wake-up call. I’ve worked for the Research Councils in the past and the emphasis (at my grade anyway!) was always on outreach to the public to change perceptions of science. To have Dr Evan Harris say effectively ‘Scratch that, hit the guys at the top’ (hope he’ll forgive the paraphrase) was a real change of viewpoint for me. Then to watch, and take part in, the events you describe above unfolding over the following few weeks – and to see that new viewpoint being proved to work in action – was incredibly exciting and energising.
    I hope the fireworks keep on exploding and the value of science becomes better understood at all levels through this. It’s certainly encouraged me to step up to the fire and speak-up where I can – I bet I’m not the only science supporter who has had their political activism kicked alight by these events. Thanks to all in the campaign for your incredible efforts – and if there’s any way I might help in future I’d be glad to know.

  7. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    Rocket science behind the campaign "Science Is Vital"?

    Huh… Rocket science in UK is absent.

    i.e. there is NOTHING behind the campaign, eh?

    Hmm… At least it is enough honest confession… 😉

  8. Stephen Curry says:

     @Jamieson – As Richard says, there was an effort to maintain a broad church and to garner cross-party support. Inevitably, fewer MPs from the Government benches signed up to support the early day motion (my own Tory MP refused) but we encouraged people to approach all of them.
    It helped that there does seem to be a shared appreciation across the benches of the value of science in our society, even if it is not entirely uniform. The task now for the scientific community is to keep driving that message home – and I don’t mean just the economic argument. We should also promote the broader cultural value of what we do.
    @New Shoot – Many thanks for your comment and contributions to the campaign. There are discussions mooted between the campaign organisers about where to go next (which Richard alluded to above), but I suspect the impact of the campaign may be rippling outward to affect other groups.
    For example, see this report from a recent "Beyond Blogging" workshop. Though not directly inspired by the campaign, I think it has similar roots (Shane McCracken, one of the co-organisers of the workshop, was also on the campaign committee).  
    @Svetlana – your sarcasm only reveals what little you know of the state of UK space science.

  9. Jenny Woods says:

    Thanks for the Beyond Blogging link Stephen – v useful!

  10. Stephen Curry says:

     You’re very welcome. 
    By the way, I came across this post today from Alice Bell which also makes the point about the effect of the Simon Singh libel case energising scientists to get into more public debates about the place of science in society. It’s a much more concise read than my diatribe…

  11. Benoit Bruneau says:

     Nice, thanks Stephen. We may need our own campaign here in the US, although I think the politicians won’t listen, since the people don’t either.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

     I’ve seen, on Twitter, a few discussions about a Science is Vital-type campaign in US and Canada. My first reaction was to run away screaming, but I did offer to share what we’d learned. 
    However, the differences in the systems might mean there is very little constructive overlap. 
    Benoit, that’s what many of us thought, initially. But we did it anyways.

  13. Frank Norman says:

    I was interested to note that CaSE are now encouraging scientists to engage with party politics.  I wonder how beneficial that will be, given that eschewing party politics was a key ingredient of the success of Science is Vital.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

     I think it’s a good idea. I know that Henry would love to see the Tories fighting for science (so would I).

  15. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers Benoit – and good luck in campaigning across the pond. I gather from Kausik’s report that there may be harder times ahead in the US after the mid-term elections. Even if you are pessimistic about the final outcome, I would not discount the benefits accruing in the long term of politicising the scientific community. 
    It would be interesting to see if social networking can span the much larger distances between researchers in the US to help coordinate their efforts. An aspect of the campaign organisation that I didn’t mention in my post was that all bar one or two regular member of the committee running the campaign lived in London; even those from outside travelled pretty regularly to the capital to attend meetings. It was definitely easier to get action agreed in face-to-face meetings than online (even though we had a pretty good back-office set-up for that).
    @Frank – I can see advantages and disadvantages. It would be silly to pretend that scientists somehow stand outside the normal boundaries between political factions. I think on balance I would applaud the move since it would certainly help to raise the level of scientific discussion within parties (and inevitably within parliament). 
    And scientists might just be a tad better at focusing on policy matters that attract cross-party support. I have long had the view that many of the problems facing society are rather technical in nature (and very complicated – hence frequent policy failures). I’d like to see political parties be less ideological and more experimental in their approach to policy formulation. 
    So any chance of Richard or Henry standing for election as a Tory MP?

  16. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    @Stephen Curry.  I was born in USSR and am living in Russia.

  17. Richard P. Grant says:

     *ha ha*!! Is this time to bring out That Photo?

    Seriously though, I think there’s more chance of getting scientists involved if you can persuade them that it *is* a party political matter. Of course, to get real change you need to cross party boundaries, so on the one hand you need to recruit from the Left/Right/Lost pool of political persuasion, yet on the other hand appeal to all the parties.
    Yeah. I’d make a *great* politician.

  18. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    @Stephen Curry. We "don’t know" about your rocket science. And Americans "don’t know" about it . Moreover, considering such situation: , I’m afraid that we will never know about UK’s rocket science in future. And I suspect that USA govt is interested in your own national rocket science even less than our govt. USA govt and our govt will not regret, if your rocket science disappears at all.

    But it is true only for govts. The scientists of all countries are interested in each other and must help each other.
    I see you’ve organized a sort of "strike committee". Probably I could turn out the most valuable person for your committee. Pay attention to my latest comments about #scienceisvital in Twitter. I’ve pointed out four demerits of your campaign. I could help you in all 4 points. Certainly, you can refuse it. But I give disappointing prognosis in this case. No, I am not pessimist and not spiteful critic. Simply, I have experience in it. I saw it. I know. Now you are going by way of our own scientists, repeating all their mistakes and making a lot of new faults.
    I shall not explain my ideas in Internet (blogs, etc). Firstly, these things must be discussed in personal talks in reality. Secondly, I am in troubles now and have no means to survive (bear in mind –  many your scientists will be in the same situation soon). I try to rescue myself now. Thirdly, remember and consider world history. Open "Second Front" just now (i.e. if you want to take me into your committee, do it just now), or else a bit later it will be useless. Crisis is rapidly developing. Only several weeks ago you stated in your petition that USA and Canada increase their scientific budget. But today you are already discussing the question about #scienceisvital in USA and Canada. And tomorrow neither govt nor you will control the situation.
    Good luck yet.

  19. Stephen Moss says:

    Stephen – very enjoyable blog, and many good points. SiV clearly has a voice, and perhaps a little muscle too. The question is, how to use it, and what comes next? Having thwarted a potentially crushing cut in science funding, would it now make sense to push the case for elevating the science budget to the percentage levels of GDP of our major competitors?
    Whatever lies ahead, one of the most gratifying things about SiV is that it has shown that scientists at the rock face don’t need to rely on their VCs and senior managers to take the lead when it comes to tackling government.

  20. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    About possible election of  "our people" into Parliament.
    It is one of methods of struggle, of course. But I am afraid that now it will not help. At best this help will not be considerable. Probably the crisis in science is deeper than we think. I suspect that now UK science turned out in worst situation in the latest 65 years.
    Maybe it is necessary to think about cardinal change of policy…

  21. David Colquhoun says:

    You’re right that the Singh affair roused people to help like never before.  But the bulk of the effort was not from practising academic scientists.  It was Allen Henness and Simon Perry who did huge amounts of unpaid work in submitting hundreds of well-justified complaints about chiropractors, just because they thought that was the right thing to do. 
    I find it enormously inspiring that there are so many people out there who are willing to do this sort of thing, but it was not mostly academics/  When the British Chiropractic Association eventually produced its "plethora of evidence" a few academics did pile in to dismantle it very rapidly but bits like mine were a small part of the total effort
    It’s true that academics have been better at defending their own interests and that’s probably all we can  expect.  Anybody who has tried to earn a crust doing research in a university knows that it’s a 70-hour a week job.  It really is true that it is hard to be a political activist while doing that. I certainly couldn’t have spent the time on activism that I do now when I had a full time job running a lab.
    I suspect that the next focus for pressure should be the Research Councils. In particular they should be spending far more on responsive mode grants and fire all the policy wonks who have accreted themselves on the margins of academia.  The only result of targetted "initiatives" is to fund second rate research (I hope Vince cable isn’t reading this or rather, I hope he is).

  22. Stephen Curry says:

     @Richard – good luck with the political career. Might almost make me vote Tory, if you were in my constituency. Almost.
    @Svetlana – I’ll take the option to refuse your ‘help’.
    @Stephen – thanks for your comment. I confess it’s not been immediately obvious what is next, though I would agree with you that a concerted effort to boost R&D spending in the long-term would be good. I am also sympathetic to David’s view that the Research Councils should be less directive in their allocation of funds to strategic priorities and listen more to the ideas coming from ground level. I find it somewhat ironic that the Government is keen on ‘student choice’ but there is little talk of ‘scientist choice’. 
    @David – I completely agree with you that the work of Alan Henness and Simon Perry in putting pressure on alt. med. practitioners (and sellers, such as Boots) has been outstanding. I mentioned the Singh case only in regard to the impact it had on stimulating me to think more deeply about my responsibilities as a scientist. My own contributions were terribly modest — attending a few meetings and writing a few blogposts, though I hope they helped to spread the word a little further. But one thing leads to another and I think its likely that the experiences of this past year helped push me into signing up to work on the SiV campaign. 
    You’re also right that a full-time scientist is unlikely to have the time to devote a significant long-term effort to such campaigns. I’m still catching up a bit from the aftermath and am all to aware of the need to keep firing in grant applications now that there is still some money in the pot. 

  23. David Colquhoun says:

    Stephen Moss makes an interesting and important point when he says

    Whatever lies ahead, one of the most gratifying things about SiV is that it has shown that scientists at the rock face don’t need to rely on their VCs and senior managers to take the lead when it comes to tackling government.

    Where were they when all this going on?  VCs seemed to be concerned mainly with ensuring that fees were as high as possible and opposing the graduate tax.  Science, it seems, is best defended by scientists themselves. People who understand the realities of work at the coal face.

  24. Richard P. Grant says:

     I don’t mean to defend VCs: we did seem to get a bit of push-back, people not wanting to muck in because it was _political_. Despite all our protestations that it wasn’t _party_ political. Sigh. 
    Still not sure what happened with the Royal Society. I thing we wrong-footed them, to be honest. Too anarchical and grassroots.
    Stephen, thanks. I promise not to kiss any babies.

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    David – like you I agree with Stephen that an important benefit of the campaign was its success in mobilising scientists on the ground. I hope some of that momentum will continue.
    But I’m not sure that VCs were so inactive in arguing to protect the science budget. I’m not privy to what lobbying might have been done privately, but I recall at least one very supportive speech on the question of funding by Prof Steve Smith of Universities UK.

  26. Stephen Curry says:

     Richard – I’d really like to know what went on behind closed doors. Maybe David can enlighten us, but more than one FRS I spoke to indicated that they were supportive but wanted to lobby privately, rather than have their face displayed on the SiV website. 

  27. Jenny Woods says:

    Oh heck! I’ve stepped away from the reply button three times now.. it’s hard to structure a focussed argument when such general comments are made about the RCs  – I don’t even know which particular ones you’re directing your ire towards, but I have to stand up here – In the past I’ve been the one on the phone who has to call 85% of applicants and tell them their grant hasn’t been funded because of lack of money. It’s gutting.
    Most of the RC staff I worked with believed in doing all in their power to get that precious funding fairly allocated to where it could be used to best effect, and in minimising the admin load on scientists so they can do the research they really dream of, and many directed programmes are targeted such beacuse the communities they support have asked for them to be so.
    It’s an area where opinions run high – but funders and funded are on the same side. Maybe there is value in a discussion which helps reach across the perceived ‘them and us’ barriers between RCs and the scientists they are there to support?
    Signed: An ex wonk

  28. Stephen Curry says:

     @New Shoot – I assure you it was nothing personal (!) and accept that most RC staff are probably doing their best for science and scientists.
    For what I hope are obvious reasons, I don’t want to go into specifics but I have seen cases of so-called strategic programs that made little sense to me – and seemed to mostly reflect the predilections of the people close to the top. I share David’s view that there should be more response-mode funding.
    Of course that’s just my view. I definitely also agree with you that more discussion with RCs would promote greater understanding. 
    That said, though funders and funded are certainly on the same side, they have different roles. The scientists are mainly in the business of doing science. The funder’s job is to try to support that by spreading the limited cash around, but they also have an important role in brokering on behalf of the scientific community with the Government – to make the case for science funding. In the past I have wondered (admittedly without any fist-hand experience!) if they have been sufficiently resolute in selling to the Govt the importance of blue-skies research. Hence the recent move to introduced ‘predictive’ impact statements on grant applications (to satisfy governmental tastes for short-term returns). I asked a senior RC officer earlier this year whether this move had increased the quality of grant applications; the answer was that it had increased the number of applications for ‘applied science’. A disappointing but unsurprising outcome. One of the many good things about the SiV campaign was that it made a strong case for maintaining funding of blue-skies research. (And maybe now scientists will be more willing to take their case directly to govt?)
    I’m not at all against assessing the ‘impact’ of public spending on science. I’m sure there are valuable lessons to be learned by gathering that information. But it has to be gathered across all activities that arise from funding support, which will be difficult. And I think it makes most sense to gather that information retrospectively over the long-term. 
    But perhaps I have got off the point…!?

  29. Richard P. Grant says:

    _It’s an area where opinions run high – but funders and funded are on the same side._
    Yah, that’s the weird thing. You’d think the RCs would be publicly pleased that SiV was fighting *their* battle. (‘Our’ battle, if you like.) And of course, the actual staffers were, privately.
    But the higher-ups… well, I do appreciate it’s difficult for them to say anything about political issues, but surely there is something we can do together?

  30. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    @Stephen Curry I am not surprised… 😉
    Wikipedia, the article "British Empire":
    "By 1922 the British Empire held sway over about 458 million people, one-quarter of the world’s population at the time, and covered more than 13 million square miles (34 million km2), almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, it was often said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" …."………"Between 1945 and 1965, the number of people under British rule outside the UK itself fell from 700 million to five million…"
    Where are now, sirs? 😉 You were too self-opinionated…
    By the way, it is dangerous (for UK) to believe Colquhoun 😉 He is Scotchman….:) “But we can still rise now. And be the nation…”

  31. Jenny Woods says:

    Don’t worry Stephen – I didn’t take the comments by you or David as personal – the only hours of sleep I lost were in trying to frame my debate so you didn’t think I was trolling! It seems there is a topic here for wider debate elsewhere – now that the science community has fought to save funding, it would be valuable for that level of engagement to continue in discussing the distribution of those limited funds for as many people as possible to believe they were targeted correctly (or ‘untargeted’ correctly!). Like you, there’s all sorts of points here I’d like to go into, but this isn’t the right forum…
    (…and apologies for the continuing pseudonym, can’t seem to get rid of it in my profile!)

  32. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    The participation of USA and Canada in SiV will anticipate a crash of your campaign. America will want to be a leader in the campaign (as usual. They always thirst for a leadership). But UK will not want to yield. Besides, I repeat – you mistook in the estimate of depth and essence of the crisis. And certainly, you are off your base about the intention of your politicians. In brief, your activity is useless.

    Be happy! 🙂 Bye.

  33. Stephen Curry says:

    Good-bye Svetlana. Your tiresome and ill-informed ranting is no longer welcome on this blog. Consider yourself banned.

  34. Stephen Curry says:

     @New Shoot – I think if you contact Lou Woodley he may be able to help you reset your user name.
    For sure it would be good to have that funding debate aired. For what it’s worth I’d like to see the Wellcome Trust’s change in funding policy included. 

  35. Stephen Moss says:

    Stephen – your last comment about blue skies research and assessing the impact of research, perhaps points to where SiV might go next. Now that SiV has the ear of David Willetts, it would be worth finding out what would be required to convince government that the science budget should be raised (at least to a level comparable to our competitors). He has asked in the past for economic justification for spending public money on science, but precisely what kind of evidence does he want? A mass of individual examples, an independent economic analysis, something else? Perhaps SiV could invite DW, plus those with ideas and views, to open a debate on this topic.

  36. Stephen Curry says:

    That’s an interesting suggestion, Stephen. Although the campaign was successful in getting the attention of the ministers in BIS, that was in part because we were helping them to defend their departmental budget against the Treasury. I hope that Willetts and Cable have personally been convinced of the case but it remains to be seen how that might convert to action in the longer term.
    It would be good to see greater government ambition for UK science (and an increase in the longer term in the spending as a proportion of GDP), but we should not forget that Willetts at least is a Conservative politician. I was not impressed by his responses in the house this past week following the announcement of the government’s response to the Browne report. He repeatedly brushed aside many of the concerns raised about the likely impact on access to university for poorer students. 
    Nevertheless, while there is no case for getting carried away with the impact of SiV, it was an encouraging phenomenon and I would certainly welcome more engagement of govt ministers by grass-roots scientists. It is something for the organisers to think about as we look to the future. 

  37. Stephen Curry says:

    I meant to add that university science (and universities in general) can not, of course, expect universal support. Simon Jenkins weighed in this week in typically caustic and wayward style. But more surprising to me was Polly Toynbee’s discounting of the concerns of university students and, as a side-line, the quality of university education. She did, however, make the valid point that the concerns of universities have to be set beside the problems that budget cuts have inflicted on FE students from poorer backgrounds. 

  38. Lou Woodley says:

    [@New Shoot – I’ve sent you a msg – let me know if you’re still having trouble resetting your name]

  39. Austin Elliott says:


    "How to spread the money to best effect?"

    You can find one suggestion, though not one with a prayer of getting any support, on my blog.

  40. Jenny Woods says:

    It’s a good article Austin, thank-you for the link…and of course it’s not just time spent writing proposals, but refereeing them and sitting on peer review panels (and increased staff/costs at the RCs dealing with them), it’s a spiral which needs resetting somehow. David Willetts did say he wanted to think about ways of reducing the admin burden on scientists at the RI SciQT meeting – I’ll be interested to see how his thoughts evolve. I note EPSRC are taking a very strict line on resubmissions at the moment, as one approach to reducing the number of incoming applications.

  41. Jenny Woods says:

    Aha, reset! Jenny Woods = @New Shoot in comments

  42. Stephen Curry says:

    I re-read Austin’s article to remind myself what a cogent argument it made for a more efficient mechanism of cash distribution than the present system. I think his proposals for small amounts of lubricating cash should be included in any discussion about reducing admin burden on labs.
    Nice to have you with us in your real guise, Jenny.

  43. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks Stephen (and Jenny)
    Sadly I think it is likely an article of faith with the new Govt that all this will be sorted out in some mysterious way by "research concentration" ("only funding the very best"). With, presumably, Universities directing the sub-best into teaching-only or redundancy.
    This is the problem with the enthusiasm of someone like Paul Nurse for better funding for the elite – it plays into the hands of those who think the solution to "too many grant applications being made" is "a lot less people doing research" – rather than my suggestion of:
    "working out how people could do some research without going mad chasing semi-mythical grants"

  44. Stephen Curry says:

     I fear you are right, Austin. 

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