Friday, 24 September 2010

Science funding

The UK is having a severe series of cuts. 25% will be cut over the next five years, ie 6% per year across all government departments except the NHS. I'm not going to comment on the economic wisdom of this because I dont know and I dont think most economists do either. However, given that fact we must decide how to lobby our government. So for the month leading up to the spending review (October 20th) lobbyists from everyone with a stake in government will come to plead thier own particular band of exceptionalism. The resounding message from across the land will be "there should be cuts, just not this ... or that ... or that ... and while you're at it can I have some more?"

This is something I find deeply unsatisfactory, so I'd like to propose some ways round it. Firstly, I'd like to parrot the normal line advised by everyone who knows what they're talking about, and talk about the economic reasons why science cuts per se are a bad idea. This is simple enough, science cuts leads to people moving. Science is a fully international discipline, in terms of career someone moving city faces as many challenges as someone moving country. This is a problem, if you cut a leading researcher's budget they'll move to somewhere where they can get more. And then their juniors will come with them, and they'll stay there, and start up a small business with a new invention and then become a giant. We can expect that in a few years (the hight of the next economic boom) there will be a burst of startups in whatever country pushes the most money into basic science now. And it's not going to be us.

The clarification on this is that this will happen whatever the level of cut, there's no safe margin in UK science of projects that cost a lot but dont go anywhere, firstly because we already get some of the best value for money of any country. And secondly because science is a subject that makes fat-trimming inherently hard. You have to get through of weird fruit-fly sex videos before you find a cure for even the smallest illnesses. You need lots of grunt work to make the big things happen.

If you think this is a good argument, and I do, sign up to Science is Vital, lobby your MP, sending an email is simple and quick, you dont even have to work out what to say, there are templates to use. Sign the petition and importantly, tell others, get others to sign up and call their MP and get them to tell others. There's a facebook group and everything, you're the social network generation, put it to use. Do something with the internet that's more than just liking whatever teen star you like this week. Blog about it!

However, I'd like to make a second suggestion, something that to me is more helpful to the debate. There are real arguments here over the budget, every single department can fairly say that cutting them would be harmful. The state in this country is so large and so embedded into society that every single cut will cause outrage. So I suggest this: we as a supporters of science should stand out, by offering concrete, direct suggestions about what we should cut instead. Like it or not this is a zero sum game, any gains for one department is a loss from another. So if we believe that science is vital then we need to say what it is more vital than. Specifically we need to find cuts that would be less harmful than a 25% five year cut in science.

Now in numbers. There is a really good Guardian Infographic giving a departmental breakdown. It's a little hard to see science. There's one central "The Science Budget" called "Research Councils" within the Department of Inovation Universities and Skills headed by Vince Cable who can be emailed here. That budget is 4 billion pounds if you add in departmental science budgets. Of course R&D is a part of every department so each needs to be lobbied to keep its own R&D going. This spreading of science under several names is a necessity, but it can cause problems. Notoriously the Labour government doubled "The Science Budget" while total R&D spending kept below inflation. But 25% of 4 billion is a nice round number so lets go with that. So I suggest we want to find low hanging fruit worth 1 billion, then present a contrast, do you want science or all this crap I found. So here are some suggestions.

  • The UK hardly has enough capital ships to consider itself having one fleet, so why do we have 41 admirals below the "admiral of the fleet"? Fire them all and you save £6.7 million.
  • While we're on the military, why do we need 2 new aircraft carriers worth a combined £5 billion? We've invaded half the middle east already so we have airbases scattered all over the place, I dont see a carrier as vital if your enemy is armed with whatever the soviets threw out 30 years ago. Sadly, the contracts are signed so you cant cut that.
  • TV licences for the over 75s, £528 million. I'm sorry, if my gran wants to watch Emerdale she can pay the licence fee like everyone else.
  • S4C £100 million. Welsh language TV, whilst fun for a laugh, is not something a 21st century government should be spending money on.
  • Papal visit, £20 million .. well a bit late now, but really, that was a damn stupid idea.
  • PCSOs, utterly useless non-policemen. I cant find a total figure as these are paid for on a region by region basis, but a starting salary of £16k times 13,500 PCSOs gives £216 million. Add the £3 million per year spent on recruiting new ones for good measure.
  • Government advertising, £253 million. We live in an era of unavoidable mass communication. If you want to tell people something get a slot on the Today program like everyone else.
This is a very rough and ready list of in order the most obvious things that popped into my head, but the ones that count total 1.1 billion. Now I suggest we ask people what they want. Do they want science, industry, technology and all the social, cultural and economic benefits that come with it? Or do they want my gran watching Emmerdale, useless people in high-vis jackets, fake admirals, welsh TV and government adverts?

I know which I'd pick.

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