Friday, 10 September 2010

Science at the top of the media agenda – for all the wrong reasons.

For once science has been near the top of the media agenda this week and for all the wrong reasons. You can read others far more eloquent than I on the subject of Vince Cable’s speech and subsequent interviews and comments on the subject of cutting back on science spending. We have been campaigning for the retention of the Charity Research Support Fund (how could you not know dear reader) so that we could at least continue to fund research at the level we do now.

Now, not only is that under threat but the Government is threatening to cut back on science spending on research and possibly particularly on cancer – almost saying that because the charities have done so well they can opt out. Yes, this is a simplification but it makes the point.

In his speech he said “I want to lay down a challenge to the science and business communities today. That we come together, work together and plan a future together that makes the most of this country’s competitive advantages in financially difficult circumstances for the benefit of us all.” You would not think what would follow from this an announcement that the science budget would be cut – cut academic research and there is no one left with whom to collaborate.

I think that is a mistake, not because it will put scientists out of work but because we as a country have precious few natural resources to exploit: we are hardly a low cost manufacturer like China or India but what we still seem to have are talent and brains and we punch far above our weight in science and innovation. Unsurprisingly that is also what drives industry and ultimately the economy so that more companies/people pay tax. More taxes....... so obviously the sensible thing to do is to choke this at the source – cut the science budget.

But that wasn’t what sent me into full rant mode. What sent me into full rant mode was Vince Cable’s statement that “There was some estimate on the basis of surveys done recently that something in the order of 45 per cent of the research grants that were going through was to research that was not of excellent standard. So the bar will have to be raised”.

We are just finishing the trustees’ report for our accounts. In it we talk about how, in the past year, the percentage of grants funded against applications regrettably has reduced. This is not because the quality has declined but because the number of applications has increased significantly but the number we can afford to fund has not increased alongside this. A panel of international, external experts has judged the research as excellent as has our very eminent scientific advisory board – and yet the bar has been raised – again – so that some of these excellent pieces of research are not being funded. I am not sure how you can be more or less excellent but that is the territory we are in. Other funding bodies, including the research councils are no different.

Oh joy, oh rapture there is someone smarter and better qualified than me who said it for me – please read Dismisses internationally excellent research.

We know that the government is going to make cuts – make them but don’t pretend it is merely to slash the mediocre.

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