Skip to content

If science fights alone, it might be a losing battle

01 Oct 2015

Anna Perman, Communities Manager at the British Science Association, on the need to gather allies in the battle to protect science investment

When you’re talking budget cuts, it’s difficult to make a case for science as a thing of beauty and wonder that we should preserve and maintain.

You have to talk in fiscal terms about the economic growth that science brings, and there’s plenty of evidence to back that up. It’s to make the case for investing in science, rather than in listening to the public, or thinking creatively and emotionally about what science can give us. It’s about marketing the product, rather than understanding how it was created.

But as someone who works to involve everyone in decisions around science, I’m really aware of how the scientific institution presents itself and the impact that has on others. I think scientists and people working in science policy have to be really aware of this and remember that once they’ve (hopefully) saved science from budget cuts, their rhetoric will have consequences.

One potential effect is that this shrinking pot of funding will make the barriers between the sciences and other publicly funded sectors like sport and the arts more entrenched. It’s hard to feel that ‘we’re all in this together’, as some have been known to claim, when we’re all competing for the same resources to keep our sector afloat.

The British Science Association thinks science should be a vital part of society and culture, which we think would create a more fair, culturally rich, and prosperous world. And if we are to fight the current ‘impoverished view of culture’ that doesn’t include science, as Roger Highfield makes a strong case for here, then perhaps cultural organisations need to be working together. Not competing. We may do better arguing for public funding of scientific research alongside other important parts of our culture.

Realistically, science has had a pretty decent ride in the last few budgets, while other sectors have found their budgets slashed. The arts are now making their own business case for arts funding. Anecdotally, I hear that arts and cultural organisations look at science as the government darling that gets all the money. Meanwhile they have to search for generous donors, or start to charge the public for cultural experiences that used to be accessible to everyone.

I often hear ‘so what’ when I raise this with scientists. There’s a perception that science is important, it saves lives, and the arts and humanities are a ‘nice to have’. I’m beginning to think this is an unsustainable approach. Science IS vital, but alone it can’t answer all the problems in the world – scientists will need to work with other sectors to learn how to connect with people, and to learn what matters to the public. Without this, how can we expect to apply any of the great things that science achieves? Without the other sectors to help us implement and make sense of the great ideas that scientists come up with, we won’t be getting true value for our money.

Just last week we saw this in action as Drax cited the scrapping of green subsidies as the reason for pulling out of a major carbon capture and storage project. It’s an example of where all the scientific research in the world is no good if there isn’t the funding in other areas to help implement it.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the great work we’ve done as a sector to protect the science budget. I was on the Science is Vital rally before the 2010 spending review (I was the one with the neon green sign). I think the arguments were good, and I think we all acted in good faith. But the rhetoric we used hasn’t protected us from this round of cuts, and I’m suggesting that rather than hit the problem with the same hammer, science advocates might want to consider refining their tools, and maybe gathering some allies.

I’d like to see the people arguing for science expanding their rhetoric. Science, like sport or the arts, does grow our economy, and it does create jobs. But talking about science purely as a driver of jobs and growth means we miss out something else that is vital about science. We lose its cultural importance. We lose the opportunity to talk about the ideas, wonder and, yes, mistakes, which are just as much a part of science as the technological advances that bring in those big bucks and create those jobs.

So my call is this – the Government needs to value and protect the things that enrich our cultural lives, and to ensure everyone has access and mutual ownership of them. Protecting our cultural heritage, in the form of science, sport, film, historical buildings, music, museums and galleries are valuable because they provide economic growth, but they also give us something to pass on to our children, and something to make our lives rich while we’re here.

Science advocates likewise need to embrace the cultural aspect of the subject. Yes, presenting science as a machine for economic growth was expedient, and has protected us from a big financial hit. But without considering the overall funding landscape, it’s a short-term strategy, and we need to consider the potential consequences for science’s image.

Related articles

Don’t handicap start-ups and scale-ups in R&D tax relief reform
02 February 2023

Dr Martin Turner, Head of Policy and Public Affairs UK BioIndustry Association (BIA), delves into the Government’s proposed reforms of R&D tax relief system and the possible implications.

Spending Review Allocations: What Happens Next
16 February 2022

Emma Lindsell, Executive Director, Strategy, Performance and Engagement on the challenges and opportunities facing UKRI with the latest budget allocations.

Lifting the lid on how Spending Reviews work
24 October 2021

Read our latest piece from Isobel Stephen, Executive Director, Strategy, Performance and Engagement at UKRI

Why levelling up’ should prioritise Northern Ireland
25 September 2020

Zoe Angel, Research Fellow at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast, outlines how Northern Ireland can capitalise upon the UK Government’s ‘Place’ agenda