Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Science is Vital 2012


Last night I attended the first Science is Vital AGM!

It was a great evening with loads of friendly folks (including more than 10 who weren’t from London!!) throwing out ideas on how we can keep Science is Vital going and achieve our goal of convincing the government that, well, science is vital! Secure more funding, protect and encourage UK science and stimulate our economy. In a nutshell. See here for the SiV key messages.

Something sobering to think about is the fact that almost a third of all people die because of a form of cancer. It is the best-funded disease type, but in fact only £10 per person per year is spent on cancer research (govt funding + charity money). If you’re so likely to suffer from something, would you not prefer a bit more money going to it? But on to proceedings…

Jenny Rohn

Jenny welcomed us to the meeting, exactly 2 years after the very first pub meeting in 2010 that spawned the SiV campaign and rally. There’s still a lot of work to be done, partly because the economy has not recovered as was predicted/hoped. What the campaign showed us was that scientists still (apparently!) command power and respect; we were not ignored. Can we use this to increase the science spend come the next review..?

Colin Blakemore

Colin gave the first address, which recapped the 2010 activities of SiV.

If we consider the predictions made before the last spending review, that science would suffer cuts of up to 40% – that would have destroyed UK science and screwed the economy.

SiV engendered respect for science in the government – it wasn’t a selfish motivation, but concern, and we need to keep this in the campaign.

At the demo on the Saturday before the review announcement (I highly recommend Della’s personal account of her SiV experience), strong arguments were put forward outside the treasury for all to hear, and there was an audience with David Willetts, the then-Minister of State for Universities and Science.

2 days before the review, the prediction was still up to 20-30% cuts. The final announcement of a “freeze” on the science budget was gratefully received under the circumstances. But, with time, the real-terms cuts have still bitten due to inflation etc.

The main argument that won (in a sense) was Adrian Smith’s work to demonstrate that UK science is amazing with respect to output (we produce around 12% of global citations with around 1% of the population; 3rd in the world in terms of citations per researcher and 1st in terms of papers produced per proportion of GDP!), efficiency and impact. Per £1 spent, we are 2x as productive as any competing nation.

So, UK science is fantastic value for money. Why cut the budget?! It works, so it only makes sense to increase investment, to positively feed back into the economy.

We’re now seeing a failure of the government to have any clear plan for science (think also of the immigration block plans, for example, that were also a serious threat to UK science; very short-sighted).

The consequences of emphasising translation, application and production at the expense of “basic science” that underpins all of these things are being realised. Without the research that makes fundamental discoveries, we cannot have the same level of innovation.

Science needs a structure to flourish in and we have nothing else to go on with to build our economy! Finance, tourism, trade… none of these are sustainable.

The only key to the future is making things, designing things, discovering things

The government’s attitude has been uniformly negative and conservative, but we must invest in priorities for the future. Science must be in the middle, if not top, of the list. It has never been more relevant than it is now.

Imran Khan

Imran is director of CaSE (the Campaign for Science and Engineering – you can support them for £2.50/month!) and continued the story, following on from the budget “freeze” announced in the spending review of October 20th 2010.

The government wanted us to know they had “protected” science with the cash freeze. The night before it was all announced, news of the freeze was leaked to the BBC and the Times. In real terms, this still meant a cut to the budget, and what the government did to make themselves look even better was (unsurprisingly) sneaky.
They redefined what “science budget” actually meant. Previously, it was all the funds that went to the Research Councils. Then, it became research allocation (day-to-day stuff like grad salaries etc.) excluding capital – which was cut by 50% or £1.7bn.

We much now challenge this idea of “protection” – we’re not happy with what happened. Public goodwill is in fact protecting the government from due criticism, because of the coverage of the freeze as such, ignoring the negative impact it’s really having.

While capital includes long-term investments like buildings, large equipment, it’s also standard stuff (such as smaller equipment; PCR machines, electron microscopes…) and the cut has been very restrictive on the research base.

Since then? Two key things: people believe science got a good deal in the budget, and the economy is worse than expected now.

The freeze was the ‘best possible scenario’ last time, but the next budget will come at the end of 4 years’ deficit in science because of it. We must campaign for an increase now. Take a look at Germany: they increased their research spending approximately 20% for the last 3 years despite the state of the economy generally, because they realise that future growth needs science and research. Some investments have happened; around £50m to the graphene institute, and similar to Pirbright. But not a lot really.

via @Ananyo and @sciencecampaign

So what are we pitching for now? The next review is likely to be… well, we don’t know. Could be end of 2013, even 2014. It depends on the coalition (!).

CaSE is working on the evidence base: why did the treasury not invest? How much have we lost in terms of private sector investment because the UK is not seen to be science-friendly now? There’s also political engagements: which MPs will be affected due to their constituents’ reliance on science & technology?

CaSE is showing how our politics and funding does not reflect the importance of science here and globally. They’re also pushing for 4G for growth, an education manifesto, and highlighting how public funding has enabled technological developments. Think of Marconi, sponsored by the Post Office to develop wireless communication. Tim Berners-Lee developed the world-wide web in the public-funded sector. Will the government not open their eyes??

There were a few questions for Imran:

Since Adrian Smith is standing down and was a friend of science – what now? Imran points out he was a former Queen Mary University vice-chancellor, so it would be good to have another non-civil service person. That’s the main hope, to keep the rapport going between the two sectors.

Vince Cable’s industrial strategy speech was leaked. In it was the telling statement “we don’t appear to have a strategy…” ! Imran points out that supporting winning sectors and not individual companies may be key; integrating industry support and the research base.

How’s the reshuffle looking for us? Funding (from BIS) unchanged, Osborne and Cameron are still there… but research specifically: the Ministry of Defence spends about £2bn/year on Research & Development. The Department of Health spends about half of that, and we now have Hunt and his shadow Burnham, who both seem to believe in homeopathy… make of that what you will. Then DEFRA spends around £250m/year, and so on. In terms of the Department for Education, they are seeing some changes in the ideas of “freedom” in education and curriculum changes. Primary curricula have become very rigid, though there may be moves away from teaching only facts at the expense of scientific thinking as a worldview..?

Following some campaign business like electing lovely new members and things, we had a bit of a brainstorming session on Where to go, What to do and How to do it?

Some goals are: expand outside of London; increase London support; increase membership and donations; build on the evidence base; raise awareness of the political cost of ignoring science; correct the “science protection” historical view of the freeze; ask for more money!

Points that were discussed included:

  • let’s hook up with some economists?
  • Imperial are hoping to get MPs engaged by inviting them to come and have audiences at the university to showcase what amazing science stuff is going on.
  • the petition (>37,000 signatures) has many non-scientists, which helps to demonstrate that we’re not just fighting for jobs, but for the whole country’s wellbeing – we should keep this going.
  • Can we do a publicity stunt to get some press interest?
  • Engage with the charities and their supporters (e.g. CRUK, Alzheimer’s Society etc.) because the patients are affected by these cuts, ultimately
  • Join up with the Science Museum? Depending on meetings.
  • Definitely go UK-wide, because the cuts are affecting research all over.
  • SiV is doing a good job of adding a human impact angle to the debate; CaSE are doing stats
  • Julian Huppert actually argued for 3% increases for 15 years. LibDem Conference is discussing the motion on Sept 24th at 9am-9:45 so tune into BBC Parliament! (Full policy paper here. Thanks, Prateek!)
  • TELL YOUR MP what you think! Letters are ok, they boost numbers they can use to show that people care about issues. Personalised letters are better than copy-pasted ones. Meeting in person is better than a letter. Do whatever you can, but something is always better than nothing.
  • Should we diversify into other issues? Open Access might be a bit niche and mostly known in the scientific community, it might dilute the SiV message. Science careers, however, are relevant to funding and UK scientific (in)efficiency.
  • why don’t MPs get it yet?

So, please support Science is Vitalbecome a member! Soon you’ll also be able to make a donation without joining up, so do then tell your friends and families! Science, research and development affects our quality of life and the government needs to hear our voices calling for more support.


I’ve written about Jenny’s talks before, both at the Dana Centre and Winchester Science Festival. Here’s a storify page of the evening’s tweets put together by @protohedgehog.

Let me know if you’d like something added here, or leave a comment below. Thanks!


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

4 thoughts on “Science is Vital 2012

  1. Thanks for the summary – wasn’t able to attend (the Atlantic Ocean being in the way) so I appreciate the wrap-up.

    [visit via Twitter tip-off from @dellybean]

  2. Nice write-up, and apologies if my verbing of ‘leverage’ grated. I’m with Stephen Fry when it comes to language – you may have seen this video, the section between 3 and 4 minutes is the relevant bit.

    The kittens will be perfectly safe.

  3. Thanks for the summary of the meeting, Marianne! Very useful to give a better picture of how the discussion of where to go and what to do went. Hope to be there for the next way and contribute personally, rather than massive tweeting effort 😉

  4. Pingback: Science is Vital 2013 | Purely a figment of your imagination

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