Why funding for science is vital

By Bob Carling
30 Sep 2010

It is not only the UK coalition government that seems obsessed with cutting back – it is endemic across all the developed nations of the world. [1] But although most would agree that something needs to be done about huge budget deficits, there is a sort of blind mentality that says cuts must be endured in all sectors of public spending. So is it those who shout loudest – or those who have leaked documents, such as the defence secretary Liam Fox [2] – who will get their way when funding reviews happen?

The recent protests in various cities across Europe against austerity cuts made it clear that politically not all would agree that cuts are the way forward. [3] As the OECD argued back in 2009, countries such as Finland and Korea have in the past invested heavily in research and development during a time of cuts in public spending and it is argued that these investments helped substantiallly in their economic growth. [4]

And what of funding for science? As with many other areas of public finance, funding for science is under major threat – maybe facing up to 25 per cent cutbacks, if reports about Vince Cable's recent speech are to be believed. [5] But there are increasing numbers adding their voices to the campaign to save science from savage cuts. Among them is Sir Martin Rees, the outgoing president of The Royal Society, who feels these proposed cuts will destroy the international excellence of science in the UK.

The scientists are getting militant. A rally is being proposed at the UK's Treasury in London on Saturday 9 October [6] and there is a petition being organised [7] which claims that the UK produces “over 10 per cent of global scientific output with only one per cent of the global population... Investing in research enriches society and helps drive the economy.”

Moreover, “It led to our pre-eminent position in the 20th century, and will be vital in meeting the challenges of the 21st – whether they be in energy, medicine, infrastructure, computing, or simply humanity’s primal desire for discovery.” And it goes on to say that “Nations such as the United States, China, Germany, and France have all recognised the importance of investing in science, especially in austere times – it could be catastrophic for the UK to do the exact opposite.”

Will these voices be heard? They might be drowned out by the controversy over defence and other cuts. But who really cares about science these days? Ever since the post-second-world-war optimism about science, support for what science can do for us has waned. Sir Martin Rees has lamented previously that “More and more aspects of public policy have a scientific dimension, but science tends to be trumped on the political agenda by seemingly more urgent though less important matters. Nor is the best scientific advice always taken adequately into account.” He feels that “It is disquieting to note how few MPs in any political party have any serious scientific interests or engagement.” [8]

Science communicators have a two-fold responsibility, that of educating and enthusing the public on science, but also to encourage the government – those that make decisions on what should be funded and why – to take science seriously.

References:

[1] 'IMF says developed nations must curb their deficits' - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10118034
[2] 'Defence cuts are draconian, Fox tells Cameron' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/sep/29/defence-cuts-draconian-fo...
[3] 'Workers rally across Europe to protest against cuts' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/29/workers-europe-protest-cuts
[4] 'Policy Responses to the Economic Crisis: Investing in Innovation for Long-Term Growth'. OECD, June 2009 - http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/59/45/42983414.pdf
[5] 'Vince Cable's science cuts under fire. Scientist line up to condemn government budget cuts, thought to be as high as 25%.' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/08/vincent-cable-science-budg... Cuts to science funding will 'destroy UK's potential' as world leader. Universities fear that cuts to funding combined with a cap on immigration will force Britain out of the premier league for research. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/24/science-research-funding-s...
[6] http://scienceisvital.org.uk/attend-the-demo/
[7] http://scienceisvital.org.uk/sign-the-petition/
[8] Lord Rees of Ludlow OM Kt PRS, Anniversary Address 2009, Royal Society - http://royalsociety.org/about-us/history/anniversary-address/

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© Bob Carling is a freelance science editor. After an academic career as a zoologist and pharmacologist, he has worked for several prestigious medical/science publishing houses. He will be writing for Ekklesia as a consultant on science-related issues. His LinkedIn page can be found here: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/bcarling

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