There’s more to science than making money

Pro-science protesters are playing a dangerous game by arguing against government cuts on economic grounds only.

Craig Fairnington

Topics Science & Tech

On Saturday 9 October, around 2,000 people gathered outside the Treasury in London to protest against the Lib-Con government’s proposed cuts to the budget for scientific research. As business secretary Vince Cable has put it, British science must learn to do ‘more with less’. This impressive protest was organised at short notice by the Science is Vital campaign, which has also recently organised a petition, signed by over 35,000 people, to emphasise the contribution that scientific research makes to the British economy.

Science in Britain is already quite good at doing a lot with comparatively little. Despite ranking only fourteenth in the OECD in terms of government funding – only 0.5 per cent of Britain’s GDP is given to science – Britain still ranks third in the world for scientific citations per researcher, and produces more scientific papers relative to GDP than any other G8 country. Scientific work done in Britain provides 12 per cent of all citations, despite Britain having just one per cent of the world’s population. Britain is known as a good place to do science and its universities attract some of the world’s top scientists: the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics are Russians working at the University of Manchester.

The majority of Science is Vital’s arguments focus on the money that scientific research brings to the British economy. Its website uses a vast array of statistics to support its argument, with the figures showing that far from being an investment black-hole, scientific research provides good returns on the money put into it, and employs a wide range of people beyond just the researchers themselves. Science is Vital also talks about the danger of Britain losing prestige as other countries increase their science funding.

Yet there seems to be something false about these arguments being pushed to the forefront of the campaign. It seems fairly obvious that these economic arguments are not what really motivates the chemists, the astronomers, the physicists, the biologists and the engineers who make up Science is Vital (not to mention the 35,000 people who signed its petition). Many of these people work in fields they feel really passionate about; they know that their skills could attract better paid work if they decided to leave the academic world. While there is undoubtedly an element of self-preservation at work in this campaign, many of those involved truly care about science as a human endeavour. So it is disheartening to hear them defend their work in terms more suited to penny-pinching middle-management.

This isn’t entirely the fault of the science campaigners. In adopting the language and arguments of economy-based thinking, they are merely reacting to an assault on their budgets which is motivated by base accountancy. These days, science projects that fail to turn a profit or contribute directly to the economy are treated as suspect; amongst Whitehall officials, there is little regard for the immaterial benefits that can arise from investment in such projects.

Campaigners even feel the need to defend blue-skies research on the basis that its results might become profitable in the future, rather than as a worthy human endeavour in its own right. Already, we have seen some areas of less directly profitable scientific research suffering as a result of cuts. Fundamental physics research and astronomy are currently experiencing a funding crisis. Britain’s role in projects such as the Large Hadron Collider has been endangered by cuts. These are important international projects, and removing British support for them harms the ability of British-based researchers to access these powerful and important instruments, to the detriment of their work.

When we have a government and a society so unsure of themselves and what principles they consider important, it becomes difficult to defend the investment of cold hard cash in something as intangible as scientific research for the sake of human knowledge. Instead, in officialdom’s view, everything must be judged by its ability to contribute to the economy, or else be slashed until the books are balanced. From this narrow viewpoint, immaterial benefits must take a backseat.

So pro-science campaigners are playing a dangerous game when they adopt the language of cuts and put the emphasis on the economic results of their research. If and when the budget for science comes up against budget claims for other fields with proven stronger economic returns, science can only lose out in the simple accounts-balancing game the government seems intent on carrying out. This even happens within the sciences: the Royal Academy of Engineering is laying claim to more of the funding that is currently directed at areas such as particle physics, by pointing out that investment in engineering is more likely to bring immediate benefits to the economy. If budgets get even tighter, we can expect more of this kind of infighting. In order to defend science properly, surely we need to have a clearer picture of why we bother to carry out scientific research in the first place – and refuse to take part in the uninspiring, managerial ideas that motivate the cuts agenda.

Funding cuts could damage science in Britain and worldwide for decades to come. The infrastructure that allows Britain to produce so much work of such a high standard has taken years to develop. Recovering this position will not be a matter of turning the money back on when we feel like it – by then the talent, the expertise, and the facilities that make British science so great today will have gone.

Yes, science is vital, but not because it makes an immediate contribution to the economy. Science saves lives, improves our world and enlightens us – it is one of the great pillars of human achievement. This alone is sufficient reason to save it from cuts.

Craig Fairnington is the web editor of the Institute of Ideas. He is organising the debate Can we trust the evidence? The IPCC – a case study at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 31 October.

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Topics Science & Tech


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