Archive for Science funding

Science funding can’t be democratic if education isn’t

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on December 15, 2010 by telescoper

An opinion piece in New Scientist by Dan Hind (who apparently has a new book out) just caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist a quick comment.

The piece makes some good points. One is that much current science funding is actually nothing more than a direct subsidy for private industry. This troubles me. As I’ve blogged before, I think research that really is near-market shouldn’t be funded by the tax payer but by private investment by banks or venture capitalists. Publically funded science should be for speculative research that, regardless of whether it pays off commercially, is good from a cultural and intellectual perspective. I know I’m in a minority of my colleagues on this, but that’s what I think.

Where I disagree strongly with Dan Hind is the suggestion that science funding should be given

… to new bodies set up to allocate resources on the basis of a democratic vote. Scientists could apply to these bodies for funding and we could all have a say in what research is given support.

I can see that there are good intentions behind this suggestion, but in practice I think it would be a disaster. The problem is that the fraction of the general population that knows enough about science to make informed decisions about where to spend funding is just too small. That goes for the political establishment too.

If we left science funding to a democratic vote we’d be wasting vaulable taxpayer’s money on astrology, homeopathy and who knows what other kind of new age quackery. It’s true that the so-called experts get it wrong sometimes, but if left to the general public things would only get worse. I wish things were different, but this idea just wouldn’t work.

On the other hand, I don’t at all disagree with the motivation behind this suggestion. In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own, astronomy, there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.


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The Great Escape? Not yet.

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by telescoper

I expected to wake up this morning with the blues all round my bed, about the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review about to be announced today, but news appearing in the Guardian and the BBC websites last night suggested that the UK Science budget may, repeat may, be spared the worst of the cuts.

This news has been greeted with euphoria in the science community, as we were expecting much worse than the settlement suggested by the news. The RCUK budget, it seems, will be fixed in cash terms around £3.5 billion per annum for four years, as will the approximately £1bn distributed for research through HEFCE’s QR mechanism. This translates into a real terms cut that depends on what figure you pick for inflation over this period. The Treasury suggests it will corresponding to a 10% reduction figured that way, but inflation has defied predictions and remained higher than expected over the past three years so things could be different. Also important to note is that this budget (amounting to around £4.6 billion) is to be ring-fenced within RCUK.

So why the apparent change of heart? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Science is Vital campaign played a very big part in this. Huge congratulations are due to Jenny Rohn and the rest of the team for doing such a fantastic job. The Guardian makes this clear, stating that science is usually a non-issue for the Treasury, but this time it was

high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as “long term and irreversible” damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

That means everyone who wrote to their MP or lobbied or went on the demo really did make a difference. Give yourselves a collective pat on the back!

BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) we’re by no means out of the woods yet, at least not those of us who work in astronomy and particle physics. As the BBC article makes clear, the level cash settlement for RCUK comes with an instruction that “wealth creation” be prioritised. The budget for RCUK covers all the research councils, who will now have to make their pitch to RCUK for a share of the pie. It’s unlikely that it will be flat cash for everyone. There will be winners and losers, and there’s no prize for guessing who the likely losers are.

The performance of the STFC Executive during the last CSR should also be born in mind. STFC did very poorly then at a time when the overall funding allocation for science was relatively generous, and precipitated a financial crisis that STFC’s management still hasn’t properly come to grips with. The track-record doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Moreover, at a town meeting in London in December 2007 at which the Chief Executive of STFC presented a so-called delivery plan to deal with the crisis he led his organisation into, he confidently predicted a similarly poor settlement in the next CSR. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope they get their act together better this time.

Taking all this together it remains by no means improbable that the STFC budget could be squeezed until the pips squeak in order to liberate funds to spend elsewhere within RCUK on things that look more likely to generate profits quickly. The nightmare scenario I mentioned a few days ago is still on the cards.

As we all know, STFC’s budget is dominated by large fixed items so its science programme is especially vulnerable. As the BBC puts it

So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.

We could have to wait until December to find out the STFC budget, so the anxiety is by no means over. However, the ring-fencing of RCUK’s budget within BIS may bring that forward a bit as it would appear to suggest one level of negotations could be skipped. We might learn our fate sooner than we thought.

Overall, this is a good result in the circumstances. Although it’s a sad state of affairs when a >10% real terms cut is presented as a success, it’s far less bad than many of us had expected. But I think STFC science remains in grave danger. It’s not an escape, just a stay of execution.

But there is one important lesson to be learned from this. When the STFC crisis broke three years ago, reaction amongst scientists was muted. Fearful of rocking the boat, we sat on our hands as the crisis worsened. I hope that the success of the Science is Vital campaign has convinced you that keeping quiet and not making a fuss is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If only we’d been braver three years ago.


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Number Crunching

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 6, 2010 by telescoper

Only time for a (very) brief post this evening, as I’ve been in London all day and got back much later than expected.

In this morning’s Guardian there was a story about how the UK’s banks intend to pay out a whopping £7bn in bonuses this year. Banks. Remember them? They’re the organisations whose behaviour almost brought this country’s economy to its knees a few years ago and needed to be baled out by the taxpayer, at enormous cost to the public purse.

Meanwhile, the Science is Vital campaign is gearing up for Saturday’s rally. An article over on cosmic variance has raised the profile of this increasingly vocal campaign to stave off cuts which threaten to destroy Britain’s position as a leading scientific nation. The petition has now been signed by over 17,000 people (including the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, announced yesterday).

It’s worth emphasizing the numbers behind this story too.  The annual UK science budget, before the next round of cuts, stands at £3.2billion. That’s everything – particle physics, astronomy, chemistry, biosciences, and countless other things.

I need hardly point out the irony. The amount we’re waging an increasingly desperate fight to protect is less than half the amount to be spent on yachts and fancy cars by the people who got us into this mess in the first place. Some of us hoped the financial sector would show some contrition after the disaster of 2007. Fat chance!  Their rescue by the taxpayer has probably just convinced them that however they behave they can always rely on Joe Public to get them out of trouble. It seems they’ve reverted to type.

So let’s have no more of the specious arguments about having to cut science in order to avoid having to cut, say, the National Health Service. Science isn’t as expensive as some people would have us believe, and it’s not a luxury either. It’s vital to our economic and cultural well-being. Each pound spend on science is worth a lot more to this country than  two disappearing into a banker’s offshore tax haven.

In any case the government should just tax the greedy bankers’ bonus payments and use the money to increase the science budget. Better still, put pressure on the banks to themselves invest in science, alongside other areas of innovation, which we know will generate healthy profits for those brave enough to take a calculated risk, rather than going back to the old game of playing around with dodgy property-based financial speculations, which have a good chance of taking us down the plughole for good.