Science must ‘get real’ not build high-altars in this spending review

Science funding is on the verge of getting a right good hammering in the US.

From afar it looks like the policy equivalent of the storms and twisters that each year cut a swathe along tornado alley running through the Mid-West. If you were watching on weather radar, this frightening picture would look like a large and very angry red blob moving across the screen in your direction.

In a sentence, the Budget Bill going through Congress would cut about £2 billion off federal funding of science as far as I can understand. But the impact is already being felt in universities, labs and patient groups up and down the land as organisations dial-down what they do in anticipation of a harsher future. The whole spending cuts process even has a name – ‘sequestration’ – which makes it sound like the Spanish Inquisition.

Take cover would be the best response of those on the end of this you might think. But, thankfully, Americans are not taking cover. In fact many are showing their passionate opposition to this, both visually and vocally. Just this week ResearchAmerica – one of the key lobby organisation – organised and lead a rally on Congress.

All this will sound familiar to the many of you who were involved with the Science is Vital campaign in the run-up to the last UK Government Spending Review in 2010. And I see the campaign has now revived itself to mobilise action ahead of the deadline for our next spending review which is 26th June.

Science is Vital Mk II seems a rather curious beast if I may so. In fact I sense the deadening of a few too many ‘ologies.’ The campaign call for UK Government funding to be increased to 0.8% GDP to match our international competitors is very specific and all the more odd because of it. Why? Because I can’t remember many successful campaigns with a decimal point in its slogan.

The concern with international competitiveness is absolutely right but can become a dangerous obsession. I recall that in 2010 President Obama was lauded here and elsewhere for his short-term stimulus package for science. I also remember one of our Research Council heads telling me at the time how dangerous it was. He, like many others, could see that after this seduction would come rejection for a great number of US scientists and their work. That looks ever more likely.

Solidity and sustainability were the watchwords following the 2010 spending review and they are worth heralding again.

We must also recognise the very fragile society around us. A few mornings ago I woke up to a strange juxtaposition of stories on the Today Programme. The first was about the argument over whether it is possible to live on £53 a week. The other was a celebration of the tens of millions extra being spent on the Hadron Collider.

Now I totally get the importance of building a pretzel shaped tunnel beneath Switzerland and during light around it to find participles. But I also understand how this might sound to the person scraping pennies together to find a few scraps to eat. And to their MP for that matter.

This is not a time to allow such things to emerge like high altars or catholic symbols of our firmly held beliefs in what science might do. Rather it’s a moment to get real in every sense of that word and, in particular, how this endeavour is utterly democratic in how it benefits society.

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