I'd been pondering what to write for my first foray into the blog-o-sphere. Several ideas were milling about my head but for some reason I never got round to putting fingers to keyboard. But the weekly newsletter from the UCL Provost has spurred me to action...
Today I lined up alongside my fellow UK scientists to draw a line in the sand. The ConLib coalition are considering savage cuts to UK science funding, and the person in charge of this doesn't even seem capable of doing his homework.
In his newsletter, the provost mentioned Science is Vital, an initiative begun by a few dedicated scientists to lobby the UK Government on behalf of UK Science and to coordinate activities protesting cuts. I joined the growing number of people who have signed the Science is Vital petition (6696 people at the time of writing) and I also emailed my MP, asking her to sign the Early Day Motion, sponsored by LibDem MP Julian Huppert, and support the Science is Vital campaign.
Why is this so important that we're getting our knickers in a twist? For starters we can't look into the future and see what scientific developments we might need to overcome a disease or solve and environmental problem. In general, we are also not very good at foreseeing the potential of cutting edge science. When the laser was invented we didn't know one would eventually be found in every CD and DVD drive on the planet and inside a myriad other devices having changed the way we consume media? And I'm sure Einstein didn't have music players on Blu-ray movies in mind when he came up with the theory that ultimately led to the laser when he published his work in 1906. Science adds immeasurably to the economic output of the UK; we meddle with it at our peril.
Back to doing one's homework. Vince Cable, earlier this month, gave a speech at Queen Mary University of London, where he posed the question of whether we [the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills] could do more with less in these times of economic austerity. To do this he proposed to "ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality — and screen out mediocrity — regardless of where they are and what they do." Laudable sentiments and bang on the money in my book. The very best researchers doing the very best science should be supported and those not achieving such lofty heights should be cut off from the research cash-cow (not that I've ever been aware of a cash-cow of any form in my short research career, and UK Government only spend about £6b of our hard-earned cash on science).
The problem with what Vince Cable said is how we define excellence and that he got his numbers wrong. Cable was widely quoted as suggesting only 54% of the work submitted to the last big research assessment exercise (RAE) in the UK was of "work defined as world-class". This is not true. The 54% covers only the top two categories, 4* and 3, in the RAE ("world leading", the top class, and "internationally excellent"). A further 33% of research returned to the RAE was rated as 2 (or of a quality recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour). Only 11% is rated nationally important, or 1. The RAE, the Government assigned auditor of UK research, says that 87% of the science performed in UK Universities is of an internationally excellent standard. Hefce, the body that hands out the funding directly to universities on the basis of the results of the RAE, allocates 90% (£980m) of its funding to the top two classes of research and a further £115m to the 2 work. The 1* research gets nothing from Hefce.
The UK Government are already focussing their meagre science budget on the very best that UK scientists have to offer. If they trimmed the fat and only allocated funding to the 3* and 4* research Hefce would only save about 10% and in doing so pull the rug from under researchers doing science of an international standard. Lets be honest here; the guys doing the 2* work aren't ripping the tax payer off, it's the nature of the beast. Sometimes routine science needs to be done and published in a lower quality journal because that's how competitive things are in the top journals these days. And there are fashions in science just like any other field.
The other large chunk of science funding to UK universities comes in the form of grants from the UK Research Councils (RCUK). I've tried a few times to get money out of NERC, the research council that funds research into the environment. Each time, the work has been rated as α4, which NERC rates as "excellent, at the forefront of field", and only once have I secured funding. NERC doesn't have enough money to fund all α4 proposals even though it would like too.
It is worrying therefore, that the chap in charge of UK Science Plc doesn't know how damn good the science in this country is, that he thinks 45% of the money is being frittered away on pointless boffin-type activities in the hallowed halls of academe. It's worrying because my job, ultimately, is dependent on getting blood out of the research council stones. If they take a 20-35% cut, as is being suggested, hardly anyone will be getting funding out of NERC and the other research councils.
Cable tried to make out like he understood scientists and science (he started a natural sciences degree before switching to economics). If this is the best he can do, heaven help us.
So I'll be there at the lobby in Parliament on October 12. I might even become a real activist and go on the demonstration rally on October 9. If you value science, innovation, and knowledge get involved and lobby your local MP. Even if you have no truck with us boffins and don't "get" science, hopefully you'll appreciate the benefits of a stable and well-funded science base for the UK economy.