“May you live in interesting times”, goes the Chinese curse. Chinese scientists are certainly living in interesting times (as reported today in Nature) but they are unlikely to see it as a curse. The budget of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) has increased sevenfold since 1998 and is set — as part of bold plans — to rise 70% in the coming year. There may be a new-found emphasis on applied research in the Chinese Innovation 2020 plan but it is difficult to argue with budget increases of that scale.
Today we also saw something of the interesting times that are affecting UK science, but the outlook is not so rosy. Pfizer announced the closure of its research and development facility at Sandwich in Kent which employs 2400 people, many of them scientists. The government’s Business Secretary Vince Cable refused to interpret the decision as a vote of no confidence in the UK as a place to do high-tech research. That rings a little hollow given reports of Pfizer’s recent investments in — you guessed it — China.
The government produced further evidence today of its lack of strategic scientific thinking when Education Secretary Michael Gove announced the termination of ‘golden hello’ payments to new maths and science teachers. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) makes clear, the scheme is to be axed even though the country is still desperately short of teachers in these key areas. Disappointingly, the evidence base for the decision remains a mystery.
All very interesting, but rather than standing around shrugging at our misfortune, scientists in the UK need to speak up. Thanks to Parliament, there is the opportunity to do so.
Imran Khan, Director of CaSE, has provided a very useful survey of the science funding landscape in the UK now that the government has laid out its spending plans in detail. The initial settlement was greeted with a general sigh of relief back in October 2010 — we all know it could have been worse — but now we also know that the flat cash budget for the next four years has been melded with deep cuts in capital expenditure.
It’s not yet clear how that will play out, but Parliament is taking a keen interest. In the words of Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee:
“Difficult funding and implementation decisions in many areas will now have to be made by the Government and key budget holders. As the dust settles over the coming months, it will begin to become clear where the key pressure points will be, and how decision will impact on the UK scientific and research community and our world-renowned science base.”
In evidence given to the Committee last November science minister David Willetts has, understandably, defended the government’s position. The Committee has also taken the views of the chief executives of the Research Councils.
But now the MPs are also asking for submission from scientists themselves; commendably the Committee wants to have the view from ground level where the bite of reality is most keenly felt. So it is down to us — the working scientists — to give it to them. If you still think that science is vital, I urge you to consider making a submission by April 27th.
Regrettably, I think you’re likely to have something interesting to say.
Update (2-2-11): This was written in haste last night and I forgot to mention the other piece of the UK science jigsaw puzzle that the government seems unable to fit together – the impact on universities of visa restrictions that will limit the number of overseas students coming to the UK. As reported in the THE yesterday, it was the turn of the Home Affairs Committee to take evidence. Let’s hope they talk to the Sci Tech Committee, so that at least Parliament is joined up (though of course visa restrictions will affect all subjects).