Nancy Rothwell

November 12, 2004

Depression has set in since George W. Bush won another four years, but every cloud has a silver lining.

Last week began rather well. One of my PhD students passed his viva, my group was shortlisted for a major funding initiative and, most surprising, the Virgin "tilting" trains got me to London and back on time - twice. But on Wednesday it all went downhill. Sharply.

Most of my colleagues had, of course, realised that George W. Bush was going to win the US presidential election. They had had time to come to terms with it.

The real optimists, those people who think the Government will give universities lots of money if we just ask nicely and that students will be happy with top-up fees once they get used to the idea, believed that Democrat John Kerry would pip Mr Bush at the post. They were crushed.

The resulting depression among colleagues was palpable and unanimous.

Academic interest in the unfolding political narrative across the pond has been intense, perhaps more so than even during British elections, and certainly orders of magnitude greater than in European elections.

The media have, not surprisingly, been chock-a-block with predictions, graphs, coloured maps and stories about the razzmatazz and bizarre queues of voters.

Recent surveys suggested that the majority of people in the UK and across the world favoured Mr Kerry over Mr Bush.

Academics are usually quite stoically disengaged from politics - unless it is likely to have a direct impact on them. But maybe this time they believed that it would have a direct impact, or perhaps they shared this opinion, published in The Independent : "I'm thinking of making my own legal challenge (to the election result), insisting that as Mr Bush clearly runs Britain, we should have had a vote as well."

Most of the concern among academics seems to be about world peace, right-wing conservatism, racial unrest, terrorism and the situation in Iraq. There are also serious worries about academic freedom, religious influence and legislation that may limit research into, for example, stem cells or potentially hazardous chemicals.

Some of this is likely to indirectly affect the UK and elsewhere. I asked a former postdoctoral student of mine, now on the faculty of a Canadian university, what the feeling was among academics there. His response was, in short, "overwhelmingly negative". The long version went on for pages.

Such concerns seem to be felt even more strongly by academics in the US who, in general, tend more towards the Democrats.

Yet research, and science in particular, has benefited in many ways from the Republican Administration. It may not feel so good if your interests are in stem cells or toxins, but other areas have been well supported.

I wonder how many scientists are looking to reposition their research towards the lavishly supported field of bioterrorism.

US spending on research is the envy of academics worldwide, including most in the UK. Funding as a proportion of gross domestic product is among the highest in the world and has been rising, while US universities top the international league tables.

This includes The Times Higher 's World University Rankings (published last week), which, incidentally, have generated total disbelief among every academic I have spoken to, irrespective of their activity, origin and the placing of their own institution.

But the future may not be so rosy for US academia, not least because of the country's massive $400 billion (£216 billion) budget deficit. The American Society for Cell Biology's latest newsletter indicates that Mr Bush is proposing major cuts.

A "leaked document" suggests that his Government will impose a budget cut of more than 2 per cent on the National Institutes of Health, while the Department of Education will have its expected $1.7 billion increase virtually eliminated next year and cut by $1.5 billion in 2006. Other areas face the prospect of similarly stormy weather.

Then there is the sharp decline in the number of overseas postdocs and students going to the US, and the reluctance of many others to take even a short trip for a conference. If Mr Bush is unpopular with academics and researchers now, he is hardly likely to win their approval in future.

But perhaps every cloud has a silver lining. A senior academic stated a few weeks ago that he hoped Mr Kerry would lose. He responded to the surprised stares by observing that with Mr Bush in the White House it would be so much easier to lure expatriate scientists back from the US or maybe even capture a few American research "stars" in time for the next research assessment exercise.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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