Archive for Vince Cable

Unravelling Cable

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2010 by telescoper

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.

Vince Cable: Out of his Depth

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%.


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The Shoe Event Horizon

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by telescoper

After yesterday’s  satisfying and enjoyable graduation festivities, it’s back to reality today with a clutch of scary news items about future cuts.

Vince Cable, the coalition Minister responsible for Universities, has revealed plans for Higher Education that include introducing a graduate tax and encouraging the growth of private universities,  the latter to be introduced at the expense of some current institutions which are to be allowed to go bankrupt. You can find some discussion of his speech in the Times Higher as well as in the Guardian piece I linked to earlier.

The graduate tax isn’t a new idea, but it does seem rather strange to be suggesting it right now. The proposal won’t lead to any significant income for universities in the short term so presumably either the government or the institutions themselves will have to borrow until the cash starts to flow in. But I thought we were supposed to be cutting public borrowing?

In fact, it seems to me that the announcements made by Cable are little more than a ragbag of ill-considered uncosted measures likely to do little but cause alarm across the Higher Education sector. Perhaps he would have been wiser to have kept the Ministerial trap shut until he’d actually worked out whether any of the half-baked ideas he announced were worth thinking through properly, as some of them just might be.

Apart from anything else, Vince Cable’s dramatic U-turn on Higher Education funding shows that the LibDem contingent have now been completely subsumed by the dominant right-wing, pro-market political stance of the Conservatives. In other words, we now know there’s no reason ever to vote LibDem again; they’re Tories in all but name.

I hope this year’s new graduates realised how lucky they’ve been to get their education before universities turn into Discount Education Warehouses, although I cling to the hope that the Welsh and Scottish assemblies might take a stand against if some of the worst aspects of the ConDem policy look like becoming reality in England, where the Tories live.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society has submitted its, er, submission to the ongoing debate about research funding. The headline in an accompanying article from the Times – which you won’t be able to read unless you give money to the Evil Empire of Murdoch – suggests that it could be “game over” for British science if the suggested cuts go ahead. Paul Crowther has done his usual fabulously quick job of hacking his way through the documentary jungle to get to the juiciest quotes, including this one:

Short-term budget cuts will put our long-term prosperity at risk.. The UK should maintain its breadth of research .. a flat cash settlement will be painful but manegeable; a 10% cash cut will be damaging .. while a 20% cut will be irreversibly catastrophic for the future of UK science and economic growth.

I’m sorry if I’m introducing a note of pessimism here, but I think we’ll be very lucky indeed if the cuts are as small as 20%.

And finally, not unexpectedly, the news this week includes an announcement that university staff are to have their pensions reduced and/or deferred and will have to pay more for the privilege. Employee’s contributions to the USS scheme will increase from 6% to 7.5%. For new members the pension will not be based on their final salary, but on average earnings. This isn’t a surprise as it’s been clear for some time that USS was actuarially unsound, but it’s one more sign of the forthcoming squeeze on academics, those of them that don’t get made redundant anyway…

Looking around for a bit of good news, I could only manage this. If you’re worried about the future of UK universities and scientific research then consider how lucky you are that you’re not Italian. Owing to budget cuts imposed by the Berlusconi regime, several Italian institutions will no longer be able to pay scientists’ wages. Responding to this situation the Italian premier replied with all his usual tact and intelligence:

Why do we need to pay scientists when we make the best shoes in the world?

Fans of the late Douglas Adams will be reminded of the following passage from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number of the shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine.

I see that Big Brother isn’t the only dystopian vision to have become reality, but perhaps Douglas Adams should have called his book The Restaurant at the End of the University?