Archive for Frank Zappa

The Very Big Stupid

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on October 5, 2009 by telescoper

Sitting on the train yesterday coming back from a night at the Opera, I was reading The Observer. Last week’s edition had featured a superb piece by comedian David Mitchell on the topic of research funding. His argument, essentially, was that the government shouldn’t be directing its research funding at areas which will yield immediate economic benefit, but should instead be doing precisely the opposite. It is, he argues, the job of industry to invest in R&D that’s “relevant” to its immediate needs. It is the job of academia to do things driven by pure curiosity. If these happen to pay off it’s of course a good thing, but it’s a bonus and can only be expected to deliver a financial return in the long term.

Funding only that bit of science that can deliver immediate profits is a bit like diverting all the Arts Council grants into pop music or pantomimes when instead it should be funding things that are too experimental to  rely on revenue generated by paid customers, such as the Opera. I couldn’t agree more, but I am a bit biased in respect of that particular example. Although his piece was intended to be humorous, like a great deal of great comedy there is a great deal of truth in it.

This week’s edition of the Observer contained a number of letters about Mitchell’s piece. One called for him to be given a position in the government. Of course that would be inappropriate. He’s an intelligent and forward-thinking person, and would therefore be completely out of place in such a job. Another letter produced the following memorable quote from Frank Zappa which is exactly to the point.

The Very Big Stupid is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department.

Meanwhile I attended a meeting this morning at which we were informed that all universities in England have been told to plan for cuts in their recurrent grants of about 15% next year. It is likely that Wales will follow suit. Since most of a University’s expenditure is on staff salaries, corresponding reductions will have to be made, either by cutting salaries or (more likely) by making redundancies.

Research Councils are also likely to feel the squeeze which will hit responsive mode grants too. For astronomy and particle physics, who rely on the Science & Technology Facilities Council for their funding, the situation is especially dire because even without the anticipated cuts, that particular organization has an enormous black hole in its  budget anyway.There is a strong likelihood that existing grant funding will be clawed back to plug the gap, with immediate consequences for postdoctoral researchers and a catastrophic long-term effect on morale.

Pure science in the UK faces a very grim period. All three main political parties have promised savage spending cuts after the next election. The Tories have promised a budget within a month of coming to power if they win; they certainly won’t increase  taxes to cover the budget deficit, especially not at the top end of the scale. A Conservative budget is very unlikely to contain any good news for science or higher education generally.

It’s time for us all to get lobbying about the importance of pure research, but the difficulty is that the Research Councils that are supposed to be distributing funds for this purpose are largely populated by politically appointed individuals who can’t or won’t fight the corner. The Chief Executive of STFC, for example, seems to be content to turn his organization into a channel through which government subsidy flows into technology and engineering companies with only a cursory nod in the direction of basic research. I suspect there are many within the higher levels of management of  other research council  who also see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to cut back “useless science” still further.

I’m sure  that in the long run people will look back on all this as a Very Big Example of The Very Big Stupid, but I’m also worried that for many research projects and for many scientific careers there may not actually be a long run.