OK, it’s time for another of my poorly researched, overreactive rants on a subject I know only a smattering about… as such forgive me if I turn out to be wrong, which I hope I am (though i’m not holding out much hope).
Today the church bells of the scientific world are ringing loudly, it’s a call to arms for anyone in or wanting to be in scientific research in the UK, and here’s the reason why: – Vince Cable has passed his sentence; and Science is to Hang on the scaffold, with the UK sailing away from all it’s colonies in the “Empire of Knowledge” – perhaps never to return.
So this morning Vince Cable – the Business Secretary – made his first major speech on science and scientific research, which has been dreaded for days by those in the scientific community as anyone who follows many science advocates on Twitter may already know. What message did he have for the scientific community? a ring-fence for science funding? real terms increases? no… what it boils down to is that if the government won’t see a return on its’ investment, then there’s no money for you.
Now, I certainly don’t think that all research is useful research, indeed today’s “science of the attractive male dance moves” has no conceivable purpose in my opinion, and those scientists would no doubt say the same of palaeontology, but to kill off research areas because there’s no “immediate financial return” is about as sensible as cutting off your nose to spite your friend’s face, let alone your own. Electricity was discovered long before there was a purpose for it to use an obvious example.
Vince Cable says in his speech that the government is in favour of this sort of “blue-skies-research” – this is undoubtedly a good sign – but it is immediately thrown to the four winds when he said that whoever divvies up the cake (the money) should be “identifying and building up the areas where the UK truly is a world leader”, and preferentially funding areas where there are “broad problems” such as gerontology (aging populations). So while he thinks blue-skies is a good idea, I would infer from these two quotes that he’s willing to see it fall by the wayside in favour of things which will be “better” research or more pressing right now.
OK, fine, but who choses? according to the Haldane principle, it shouldn’t be the Government, but without precise guidelines from them how are the research councils going to know what whitehall would consider to be good or useful research? It’s a case of Catch-22;
We [the government] can’t tell you how to spend the money, but you can’t spend it (“correctly”) without us telling you how to spend it, but we cannot tell you.
So the Haldane principle forbids the government from telling them who to give research money to, and the research councils will have to get guidance from the government somehow, so to regress to the obvious question – who tells them? I’ll leave that question open, because I don’t know the answer.
What happens if we [whoever divvies up the cake] picks the wrong research to bin? many so called “winners” have been shown after a bit of research to be “losers” for one reason or another, this is ok, science falsifies bad ideas – that’s half the point. The real problem is where so called “losers” get cancelled or not funded for the sake of this new economy, and they are actually “winners” – but because we didn’t fund them we never know – or worse – they get funded elsewhere (US/Germany/Canada/China…etcetera) and not only do those countries then benefit from our loss, but our talent goes after the funding and we have another “Brain-Drain” on our hands.
Elsewhere in his speech, Vince Cable talks about screening out Mediocrity in the scientific community – a noble idea this may be, but I would have one question for Mr Cable; has he heard of the Peer Review process? I assume he has, and I would hope he knows something about it, in which case why doesn’t he let it do the job it’s been doing well for as long as it has been around?
There isn’t such a thing as “Mediocre research”, where it exists it is shown to be that by peer review and isn’t funded again, and where it is perceived to exist it is usually merely a cloak and dagger way of saying “Research I don’t understand/see any profit in”.
At the end of the day as a blogger there isn’t a great deal I can do to stop this, and there are far better, far more qualified people out there doing what they can including Dr. Evan Harris (1/2), Lord Drayson, Prof. Brian Cox and many others. I hope that the scientific community puts down it’s mantle of being separate from the rest of the world for just long enough to secure it’s future.
I want to be a Scientist, I want to do Research, and I would like to stay here to do it, but the way things are going, I’ll be moving abroad, just like I said yesterday about tuition fees, it’s going to be a three option choice:
- research what the government wants you to,
- get screwed,
- or go research abroad.
However unlike tuition fees, I’m going to be graduating into it, not out of it. So whoever isn’t fighting this that should be, get off your academically complacent arses and start shouting… and make sure you SHOUT LOUDLY.
Short-Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-7H
- Is Vince Cable about to end Britain’s research empire? | William Cullerne Bown (guardian.co.uk)
- Much ado about Cable (blogs.nature.com)
- Vince Cable versus the World (on Science) (blog.sciencecampaign.org.uk)
- Vince Cable’s science cuts under fire (www.guardian.co.uk)