Dude, where's my stimulus?

Kevin Fong bemoans science's continuing inability to secure its future

May 28, 2009

The future ain't what it used to be. The science community knows this all too well. Until recently they seemed to have plenty to look forward to. At the start of the year it looked for a short while like all their Christmases might be about to come early. You can forgive them for this mistaken belief. It followed on the heels of great, stirring announcements from Gordon Brown.

"Some say that now is not the time to invest," he said in February at the University of Oxford, "but the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science. We will not allow sciences to become a victim of the recession."

It was a wonderful sight: our Prime Minister championing the cause of science, charging on his trusty steed, sporting the colours of Sir Isaac Newton, head low, lance extended.

On it went. There were hints that perhaps a billion pounds would be injected into the science budget. It was rumoured that basic scientists across the research councils were taken aside and asked to submit wish lists detailing how they would spend this windfall. Momentum gathered, and the Prime Minister was joined in the charge by officials from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

"The time has come to build a society that seeks high-value engineering, not financial engineering," Brown said. At long last, the value of curiosity-driven science and its importance in the future of our country had been recognised by those in power, and the folly of near-total reliance on the financial services sector had been understood. It was pitch perfect: the tantalising possibility of a return to a society that knows things and makes stuff lay within reach.

It was all enough to get even the most sedentary among the science brethren turning cartwheels down the corridors of their institutions. The charge continued: Brown, flanked by Lord Drayson, leading an army of scientists, the thunder of hooves almost deafening. And then, just as victory seemed at hand, wallop, bang, crunch, down came the jaws of the Treasury and gobbled the whole thing up. No billion-pound stimulus emerged; in fact, in many areas cuts would follow, and the science community was left wondering if it had been the victim of one enormously cruel April fool's gag.

It is easy, from this point, to enter into a bit of obligatory Brown bashing, followed by some wringing of hands about whether or not DIUS is fit for purpose. But, in fairness, both Brown and DIUS appeared to have the right instinct and both appeared keen to try to push the idea over the top. So what happened? Was it the bean-counting ways of the Treasury? Well, yes is the short answer. But then its officials are only doing their job according to the rules laid out before them; accounting for cost and profit in a way that doesn't allow fundamental but subtle benefits to be appreciated.

The true problem lies deeper, in the total absence of a system that can marry vision to long-term strategy and embrace complexity. One can understand why the Treasury is paying more attention than usual to the cheque stubs at the moment. There is a need to get the books in order, a need to start clawing our way out of this mess. But in this recession, supporting the short-term needs of business and industry while ignoring the science base is like choosing to invest in lifeboats while refusing to rebuild the flood defences.

In the same speech at Oxford in which he promised to protect science, Brown talked about trying to redress the decline in interest in core science among schoolchildren, all in an effort to ensure that the UK could continue to produce "the great scientists of tomorrow".

The best way to get children to engage in science is to send clear signals: signals that demonstrate unequivocally how highly science and scientists are valued by Government and society. We must show that those who pursue science can look forward to a properly resourced infrastructure, to a culture that fosters excellence and a society that truly understands the importance of fundamental knowledge.

The Obama Administration seems to have understood this. The US Government decided to back its rhetoric up with $20 billion (£13 billion) earmarked for basic science. It is a great shame that we as a country have been unable to follow suit. It appears not to be for lack of vision or will on the part of Brown or his science ministers. We just seem to lack a system that can allow the science base to attract the stimulus it so deserves. This is an issue that we need to tackle properly and urgently, because right now the future really ain't what it used to be - and it could be about to get worse.

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