A black day for British science
The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, made his first speech about British science today. Sadly, what should have been a visionary statement was a speech that set out the parameters within which science spending will be cut.
Setting the scene, the Business Secretary said that we face the tightest spending round since post war demobilisation, and that his department is the largest in Whitehall without a protected budget. Science, alongside further and higher education, is one of its largest components. In this context, Vince Cable asked if we can achieve more with less.
Cable went on to say that the US is doubling basic science spend between 2006 and 2016, while China has seen a 25% increase in central government funds to the science and technology sector. However, he went on to say: “We in the UK are severely financially restrained. I want to pose the question to you: how do we economise without damaging science.” He also asked the question: how does government spending in scientific research contribute to the economy.
Separately, ‘The Times’s’ science editor, Mark Henderson, reports that the Medical Research Council has drawn up plans to withdraw the £105m that it spends annually on cancer to meet Treasury proposals to save at least 20% on its £700m budget. Threatened projects could include the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford, the world’s leading centre for radiology research.
The TUC has said today that cutting science funding is completely the wrong thing to do. To answer Vince Cable’s questions directly, we probably cannot achieve more with less. And we probably cannot economise without damaging science. There may well be an odd pocket here or there that is performing below standard, but cuts of 20%, perhaps more, cannot be achieved without lasting damage to the UK’s science base.
That isn’t what a government obsessed with reducing the deficit wants to hear, but it is true. And, of course, curiousity-driven science is a public good that cannot neatly be divided into that which contributes to the economy and that which does not. MRC research into cancer treatment isn’t designed to strengthen the economy, but history tells us it will have all kinds of economic spin-offs.
It would be more honest of the government to say that it wants to cut the deficit and if that means damaging UK science, then that is a price the government is prepared to pay. The science community, including the thousands of trade unionists working in or teaching science, would have fought that approach with all their might, but at least the government would have been recognising the real position we are in. Because whilst always being vigilant in search of genuine efficiencies, we simply cannot achieve more with much, much less. The world, sadly, doesn’t work like that.