Saviours of a far from lost cause

May 7, 1999

Save British Science is to launch its own 'green papers' to ensure its activities pay off, says Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS

The prime minister has told Save British Science that he looks forward to the day when we "start to feel" that we can change our name. Like us, he recognises that British Science is not yet out of the woods, after years of neglect and underfunding.

In a climate in which the chancellor of the exchequer is investing more than Pounds 1 billion of new money in science over the next three years, it would be easy for Save British Science to rest on its laurels. We know we are effective. But we also know that our effectiveness has come because we have always been ahead of the game.

This is why SBS is starting a policy review. We will be issuing "green papers" to many of our supporters to make sure that where our policies are controversial we can carry the scientific community with us. We will also be thinking seriously about tactics. There are four broad areas in which we should be active: The science and engineering base There will continue to be one core message: the science and engineering base is underfunded. We do not want to be seen as science's answer to Oliver Twist, always saying "Please can we have some more" but whatever the level of investment, they should read our recent documents, which define what we think would be a defensible level of investment (website http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/sbs).

As a percentage of the national wealth, the government needs to double its investment over about a decade to come up to the average of 20 comparable Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (to about Pounds 5.6 billion per annum by, say, 2010). If it does so, SBS will consider changing our core message, but until it does, we will not.

There are other important concerns to do with morale and recognition. Researchers are simply not paid appropriate salaries, and they are burdened with administration that did not exist a generation ago.

Young scientists feel stressed about having to get a stream of papers out, filling in grant applications and preparing for assessment exercises. They have too little time to use their teaching and research skills to advantage.

This is an area where SBS will step up its presence. Scottish and Welsh devolution may well offer opportunities for change and we are involved in campaigning in the new parliament and assembly.

Science and the economy It seems that everyone now knows that science is important to the creation of wealth and jobs. Many people also appreciate that blue skies, curiosity-driven research is just as important to the long term health of the economy as near-market research and development.

SBS has always put its activities on the science base into a wider context, and in that spirit, we held a symposium in February on the development of wealth-creating companies from within the academic science and engineering base. It was held in the City, and Michael Snyder, the director of finance at the Corporation of London, began the day by hosting a breakfast at the Guildhall. By creating real links between scientists and the City in this way, SBS is contributing to the process of finding new ways of capitalising on the excellence of British scientists.

Science education It is good news that the government has broadened the A-level syllabus. It is ludicrous that clever 18-year-olds who will get good degrees and important jobs should not learn anything about the scientific method if they choose three arts and humanities subjects, and equally that scientifically minded youngsters can get away with being artistic philistines. More universities should do what Cambridge has done and state that they will give preference to students whose A-levels cross the arts-sciences divide.

The perception and use of science I wrote in this newspaper last year about the shortcomings of the way that successive governments have used scientific advice, and this will continue to be an area where SBS will press hard for change.

More generally, those involved in Public Understanding of Science need to ensure the public knows what happens in laboratories, not just knows about the discoveries that come out of them. It is not our job to do this, but it is our job to point out that it needs doing.

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