I woke up this morning with the Vince Cable Blues, owing to an item on the BBC News concerning a speech by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that clearly signals that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will entail big cuts to the UK’s science budget.
It was a depressing way to start the day, but I for one wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. We all know big cuts are coming, the only remaining questions are “how big?” and “where?”. However, when the text of the speech was released, I was shocked by what it revealed about the Secretary of State’s grasp of his brief. Read it for yourself and see if you agree with me.
Of course there are the obligatory platitudes about the quality of the UK’s scientific research, a lot of flannel about the importance of “blue skies” thinking, before he settles on the utilitarian line favoured by the Treasury mandarins who no doubt wrote his speech for him: greater concentration of research funding into areas that are “theoretically outstanding” (judged how?) or “commercially useful” (when?). In fact one wonders what the point of this speech was, as it said very little that was specific except that the government is going to cut science. We knew that already.
For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.
So was Cable’s speech was feeble-minded, riddled with clichés, and totally lacking in depth or detail? Yes. Was it surprising? No.
What was surprising, at least to me, is Cable’s deliberate use of spurious numbers to back up his argument. For example,
Its is worth noting in the last RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.
This appears to be what Cable was referring to when he stated on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that “45% of research grants were not of excellent standard”.
For one thing, there’s a difference between a research grant and the money allocated by HEFCE through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE); more about that in a moment. Moreover, at least in England, RAE funding is only allocated to grades 3* and 4* anyway, so the concentration he talks about is already happening. The comment is made all the more meaningless, however, because the 54% was actually imposed on the assessment panels anyway; they were told to match the outcome of their deliberations to a target profile. The figure quoted is therefore hardly an objective measure of the quality of scientific research in the UK.
When it comes to research grants – usually obtained from one of the Research Councils, such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) scientists apply for funding and their proposals are assessed by panels. In the case of STFC I can assure every one that the only proposals funded are those graded excellent, and there isn’t anything like enough money to fund all the proposals graded that way. Further cuts will simply mean that even more excellent research will have to be scrapped, and even more excellent scientists will go abroad.
This basic misunderstanding convinces me that Vince Cable is completely out of his depth in this job. That’s very unfortunate because it means he will probably be susceptible to manipulation by the dark side (i.e. the anti-science lobby in Whitehall). Already someone – most likely a Civil Service mandarin with an axe to grind – seems to have duped him into thinking that 45% of taxpayer’s money funds mediocre research. What with him already singing so enthusiastically from the Treasury hymn sheet, I fear they have got him exactly where they want him. Rarely has a new arrival in the Whitehall jungle gone native so quickly.
Another remark of his that was quoted today is that “the bar will have to be raised somewhat” in terms of science funding. At the next General Election I hope the British people, especially those foolish enough to opt for the Liberal Democrats last time, will “raise the bar” when it comes to deciding who is worthy of their vote. I’m sure of one thing, though. The fraction of British politicians who are “mediocre” is an awful lot higher than 45%.