Science is Vital

By Mark Trodden | October 2, 2010 5:54 am

Although I live and work in the US, I was born and educated up to graduate school in the UK, and for reasons both intellectual and personal have been becoming increasingly appalled by the treatment of science there. Put simply, after years of neglect and pressure under the previous Labour government, science funding is now facing evisceration under the new ruling Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition.

I have a lengthy post in the works about my own feelings about the state of the British higher education system, and the treatment of science more specifically. However, here I’d like to make sure that any interested readers are aware of a concerted effort to push back against the planned short-sighted cuts, under the banner of the Science is Vital campaign.

From their website, Science is Vital is

… a group of concerned scientists, engineers and supporters of science who are campaigning to prevent destructive levels of cuts to science funding in the UK.

and the concrete steps that one can take to help the cause (mostly useful if you live in Britain) are

1. Sign the Campaign for Science & Engineering petition.
2. Join the Science is Vital demo in central London, Saturday 9th October at 2 PM.
3. Write to your MP about the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths.
4. Come to the Houses of Parliament for the Science is Vital lobby of MPs on 12th October, 3.30 to 4.30 PM.
5. Spread the word using the posters.

Fellow cosmological bloggers Andrew Jaffe (an American who lives and works in the UK, as a Professor at Imperial College, and blogs at Leaves on the Line) and Peter Coles (a Professor at Cardiff University who blogs at In the Dark) have been writing eloquently and persuasively about the threat to British science for quite some time now. Both have recent posts (Jaffe, Coles) which describe the Science is Vital effort and the motivations behind it.

If you care about science, and maintaining Britain’s historical strength in this area, I urge you to sign the Science is Vital petition, and do whatever you can to fight the planned cuts. It can take a long time to become one of the world’s leading nations in such an important endeavor, but considerably less time to throw away that status. Please don’t let that happen to British science.

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  • Tuc

    Maybe instead of forcing others to fund science you should create a private foundation and offset the cuts yourself?

    It’s only rational that funding for science increases in good times and decreases in bad times.

    Besides it’s good to trim the workforce from time to time, letting the bottom 15% go may actually benefit the science in the long run, it will certainly remind everyone that they are not entitled to their jobs and so they better have some results to show if they want to keep them.

  • bittergradstudent

    @Tuc:

    The ROI, alone, on basic science research that otherwise wouldn’t get done in the private sector makes your argument absurd.

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I don’t get why the connection between science, science education, and prosperity as a nation isn’t obvious to people.

    ~Rhaco

  • Anonymous

    English is a funny language. If “Science is Vital” fails, the vitality of science in the United Kingdom will be sapped.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    The comment by “Tuc” might make some sense if there were any chance at all that it was the bottom 15% that get cut. There’s no doubt, however, that what is actually going to happen is that the best 15% (or more) will up sticks and relocate to another country, as most competitor economies (including the USA) have actually increased science funding.

    British scientists have achieved a huge amount with extremely low levels of funding. To cut back further now is simply madness. As one friend of mine put it, “it’s like trying to lose weight by blowing your own brains out.”

  • Nullius in Verba

    The politicians already know that science is important, they know about the return on investment, they know about the long-run harm it could do to the economy.

    But there’s no money left.

    You can’t spend money you don’t have. Even in the good times, you can’t spend more on science than you’ve got. You can’t invest money in high-yield returns if you haven’t got it to invest. There’s no money. They ran out years ago, and have been borrowing like mad to cover the gap, and are now about to run out of people willing to lend it to them.

    They’re cutting welfare and public health, too. If you don’t cut science, then you have to cut everything else even more.

    As Tuc said, if you want it to go on, you are welcome to try to fund it yourselves; to borrow the money to pay for it. The logic is the same – if it’s worth funding via tax, then it would be worth funding via charity. Or you could look at it the other way around, and suggest that scientists and engineers from now on will work for free, for the sake of science. How much do you believe in it?

    It’s a relief, though, to know that other nations are willing to take on our top scientists and continue to fund it. Bad news for the UK, but good news for science, and humanity in general.

  • spyder

    Not so sure the US is a haven for science and science funding. In public educational environments in the US, they first take away the arts, then the humanities. Next they cut the sciences, keeping only math (and language education in k-12 schools) as a viable policy. Just review the debates in the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding the battles for funding among the departments and which ones are getting the cuts first.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    Nullius in Verba, to say that “there’s no money left” is quite wrong. The government is still committed to the Trident nuclear submarine programme which costs more than six times the annual science budget and is entirely useless. Though it clearly needs tackling, the UK national debt is not at particularly high levels, historically speaking. If you don’t believe that, look at:

    http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt_chart.html

    and most of the debt we have has a long date, unlike Greece and Ireland. This is why Britain retains an AAA credit rating.

    The cuts are nothing to do with economic necessity and everything to do with political dogma.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Peter,

    Your graph divides by GDP. Try this one. GDP includes government spending. National debt doesn’t include PFIs or personal debt. (Although I would agree it’s more complicated than that.)

    Britain only retains its credit rating because its government chose to do something about the debt. Yes, you’re right. It has everything to do with political dogma. There’s the dogma of the ‘credit card generation’ who spend to the max and only start to think of it as real money when all the cards are maxed out and the bailiffs are knocking on the door, and the dogma of those who don’t borrow unless they have a plan to pay it back.

    It’s true, we’re not in the same situation as we were in the great depression, World War II, or post-war rationing. But that’s not really a recommendation.

  • celestial toymaker

    Someone who made the reverse journey makes a similar point here:

    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/10/bill-bryson-science-amount

  • bittergradstudent

    @nullius:

    1) the PIGS countries aside, former first world countries aren’t even in the yellow debt zone. They could deficit spend if they wanted to, which is typically advised during an economic downturn. Ending the recession will cut debts more than anything else.

    2) Also, especially in the US and the UK, taxes could simply go up, especially on the upper classes. Thatcherite and Reaganite upperclass tax cuts haven’t had their promised trickle down effects, and are the real origin of the account deficits.

    3) As spyder notes, the cuts could be coming from the military.

  • fh

    Even if there was no money left, science spending is heavily correlated to future growth (http://www.oecd.org/document/0/0,3343,en_2649_34269_41568384_1_1_1_37417,00.html). It’s madness to cut it.

    The idea that the absolutely miniscule science budget is somehow the appropriate and neccessary place to reduce spending in times of austerity is just wrong. It’s no better than deficite spending in terms of selling out the future for present gain.

    This is why Germany after two decades of debt fuelled reunification has heavily invested in science again in the last years. This is an uncontroversial move with broad public support.

    Also, Science is Vital was started by another science blogger, Jennifer Rohn: http://blogs.nature.com/ue19877e8/

  • scientist

    @nullius:

    Running out of people willing to lend it to them? 10 year UK bond rates are below 3%! In the US they are around 2.5%! People are lining up and BEGGING governments to borrow their money and do useful things with it, almost for free. When money can be borrowed so cheaply it is criminal for governments not to take advantage of the opportunity and invest in long-term growth, including basic science and education.

  • kirk

    Yo, TuC
    By your logic and the law of averages where any distribution will have the same shape as a large distribution, which of the following should have been part of a reduction in force?
    1. Burks
    2. Goldstein
    3. Von Neumann
    4. Shockley
    5. Bardeen
    6. Bratain

    As an engineering manager I was stopped cold when I explained the logic of a RIF when a smart-ass asked me “So did we purposely hire on a normal distribution so we knew from the start who to eventually get rid of?”

    Typical Objectionable Objectivist fail

    http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa061698.htm

    http://books.google.com/books?id=_ykfBAWBkxoC&pg=PA2&lpg=PA2&dq=burk+goldstein+and+von+neumann&source=bl&ots=ZkqQjwCv38&sig=C7pm2SrFPkcKL_SmrpmIKVwaE-4&hl=en&ei=q_SpTOH7KsKBlAfNg8W0DQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Anonymous_Snowboarder

    As Tuc has said, perhaps it is time greater effort is placed in getting private foundation and corporate funding. From the stats I could find it looks like this would put funding levels back to around 2005 levels. Surely some of that (and we are not talking enormous nominal sums) can be made up thru philanthropy if someone was willing to try.

    As another poster said – the piggy bank is empty. If you don’t cut this, what do you want to cut instead? Or do you prefer to continue printing more IOU’s?

  • bittergradstudent

    #16: it’s a modest amount of money, and the whole deficit can be fixed via tax increases anyway, and the piggy bank isn’t empty anyway.

  • *generator Msftedit 5.41.15.1515;

    It’s entirely Bush’s wrong doing

  • Jimbo

    Perhaps the problem is more widespread than Mark imagines.
    Dirac left Bristol for the personal & environmental warmth of Fl.St.U., in the US.
    Mike Duff, left Imperial for a healthier science climate, but eventually came back.
    These are just two examples, but I’m sure there are more.
    Todays Nobel laureates are a counter example, however.
    Most telling tho, is the anti-scientific mentality there, nearly rivaling that found in the US.
    A recent poll amongst college students in the UK, found most do not believe that global
    warming is man-made, nor do they accept Darwinian evolution.
    Soon there may be a Scopes trial in Darwin’s native country if this keeps up !
    With people hurting world-wide, it was inevitable that science be scrutinized for every penny.

  • MightyMike

    Jimbo,

    Do you live in the UK? I’d like to hear theories to explain why British students don’t accept evolution. In the US the answer would be the influence of religion in the culture. The UK is generally considered post-Christian at this point, so why would students reject accepted science?

  • Nullius in Verba

    #20,

    One popular theory is that political correctness prevents us challenging minority cultures.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/aug/15/highereducation.students

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  • http://www.rohanmedia.co.uk Rohan

    I’d like to compile a list of case studies on how (specifically) esoteric scientific research has lead to industrial innovation. For example GPS (started as an unfunded interest group tracking the Sputnik signal).
    A list of these would be useful in campaign letters/literature.
    Also it would connect science with the bottom-line, which is all the politicians and general public care about or understand anyway.

  • http://telescoper.wordpress.com Peter Coles

    If you’re one of those people who sticks to the argument that science has to be cut because “there’s no money left” then consider these facts:

    1. Amount paid out in bonuses to the UK banking sector in 2009-10 = £7bn
    2. Total UK Science budget for the same year = £3bn.

    Now tell me there’s not enough money.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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