Brain surgery is dangerous

Kevin Fong argues that cutting science funding will be bad for Britain

October 21, 2010

The past month has seen extraordinary scenes; the usually mild-mannered brotherhood of science has taken to the streets in protest at the proposed cuts to science spending. Some 2,000 of them marched on Downing Street, armed with a modified Pink Floyd ditty and a single message for the Chancellor: “Hey. Osborne. Leave our Geeks alone.” By all accounts it was an impressive display with luminaries from across the science community and beyond stepping up to the mike to make themselves heard.

Whitehall is no stranger to protest, but this was, in substance, far more than some vaguely coherent rebel yell. These are rational people; rational and logical thought is what they do and so their arguments tend to hold water. Their illustrations of the great benefits of science are unassailable to all but the most obtuse. They go something like this: Just look around you at the modern world and then start to delete any item, or industry, that wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for some historical, esoteric, scientific musing or other and you rapidly get back to Stone Age standards of living.

That army of scientists and their supporters who took to the streets represents a brilliant body of professionals of which this country should be proud. They are without doubt of immeasurable value to society. And that is part of the problem. Their value is as plain as the nose on any face but it cannot be measured or expressed in terms that the man from the Treasury is prepared to accept.

It is a great shame that the pursuit of science has somehow been painted as a singularly self-indulgent affair; as a disposable luxury that can be set aside now that the economy is tanking. By any measure of academic success, the bang for buck that we get from our research scientists is impressive.

They are first among the G8 nations for the number of scientific publications produced per unit of GDP invested, they are third in the league table of citations per researcher and 90 per cent of all their research output is considered “world class”. But when it comes to the public funding of science, as a fraction of GDP, we are outspent by everybody in the G7 group of industrialised nations other than Italy.

In short, the science base is just about as lean and mean as it could possibly be; to subject it to further cuts would be to leave it positively skeletal.

These are clearly times of unprecedented challenge but it is not scientists’ lack of effort or productivity that has saddled us with this horrific fiscal deficit. On the contrary, science and innovation, properly resourced and encouraged, could play a significant role in the economy’s later salvation. But the current course on which our government appears set conjures a perfect and deadly storm.

In previous years a different kind of deficit preoccupied our ministers: the deficit in the supply of science graduates. The past two decades have seen schoolchildren and undergraduates deserting core science subjects. Politicians struggled to come up with initiatives to try to make science more attractive; among these a broad reaffirmation of the value of science and scientists to our country. But the proposed cuts in science spending send a clear signal to our sixth formers: that a worthy but less well remunerated life, dedicated to the advancement of science and the pursuit of knowledge, is, in the eyes of the government, worth little or nothing at all.

And these are the same prospective undergraduates who will shortly be heavily incentivised to consider, principally, the bankability of their costly degree courses before they choose and embark on them. I cannot help but imagine that they will, for the most part, seek out careers and courses other than science or the teaching of science as a result.

And those brave science graduates, uncowed by the debt mountain, will be left to consider their future prospects. In the row over bankers’ bonuses we were constantly reminded that there is a market rate payable for talented individuals; that if sufficient reward cannot be found here then there are other countries in which to settle. Presumably these rules apply to graduate scientists too. Is it not entirely likely that they would consider deserting the UK for sunnier climes; for any one of the overseas economies throughout the world that, in the face of austerity, has chosen to invest in science rather than abandon it? All of this has happened before and, if the cuts go ahead as planned, it will happen again.

It is not hard to convince oneself of the economic value of maintaining science funding even in the face of this recession; indeed several of our global competitors have done just that and chosen to invest. But the arguments that articulate the value of our science base reach beyond its immediate market return. Albert Einstein once taught us that “not everything that counts can be counted”. This is a tutorial that the coalition would do well to heed. The proposed changes to higher education and science funding will sit like an airlock in the pipe that supplies the future generation of technologically and scientifically literate graduates upon whom the economy depends.

While the immediate needs of the economy must be served, it is always worth remembering that money doesn’t make the world go round without the laws of physics to assist it.

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