Science is Vital – a personal look

A few weeks ago, several tweets alerted me to a speech Vince Cable was about to give at Queen’s College. The announced cuts that scientists in UK were to expect prompted several to comment. Importantly, it prompted Jenny Rohn to spring to action and “drag” us with her. In the end 35,000 were drag into this. I am proud to say I was one of the ones that also felt we had to at least make our voice heard.

One of the initial ideas prompted on a Facebook page set up within hours of the speech was a march/rally against the cuts. Having demonstrated many times as a student back in Portugal, I was skeptic about the effectiveness of a rally. Later ideas  of a petition, writing to our MPs and lobbying the Parliament, however, sounded, to me, like a more effective approach. It was clear from the starting discussions on twitter and facebook (this was, all in all, a social network campaign) that the focus would have to be on why Science should be spared in these cuts. And the emphasis on why it made economical sense to keep science investment was clear.

This is what made me believe this was a campaign with a difference – particularly when compared with the ones I took part as a student. There was a purpose, there were fact-based arguments, there was a plan (or rather one was shaped in quickly).

I did my small bit in spreading the word, using the contacts I might have to get more and more people to sign the petition and write to their MPs. At this point, I still believed those would be the key actions to get the government attention. The rally remained something I might give a miss, having marched so many times before with no success…

However, as the campaign grew and support spread, I changed my mind and decided this was one rally that might just be worth going to again. I almost backed down when I heard people were being told to bring their labcoats… I felt it would emphasise the stereotype and make it look like all we really cared about was our jobs…

But as I stood outside Westminster tube station as a rally steward (how did that happen?!), I have to admit groups of white coats streaming out of the station was an impressive sight indeed.

Having the chance to then go to Parliament and see democracy in action and tell our MPs why science is vital was an amazing opportunity. Ever since I moved to England and learned more and more about the ins and outs of British democracy and Parliament, I’ve admired the direct accountability MPs face here. And the lack of response from my MP to 3 emails and several tweets was seriously making me disappointed with it all… I had always praised the fact that constituents can always expect a reply from their MPs, even if it’s a negative response or a mere acknowledgement of being contacted.

Fortunately for my trust in British democracy, Mr. Greg Hands, Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, did eventually reply. It did arrive a day after we were due in Parliament, but he did take the time to explain his position and I appreciated that.

Looking at the pictures of the Science is Vital team delivering the petition with almost 35,000 signatures to Downing Street really made me realise how much had been accomplished. Getting that many people to show support for science in 3 weeks is nothing but amazing and deserves continuous praise.

As I write this, some details of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) are starting to be known. Science budgetwon’t suffer the massive cuts we all got to fear. It will be frozen for the next 4 years, which translates into a 10% reduction over that period. Importantly, it’s ring-fenced within the Business, Inovation and Skills department. Considering what was apparently on the table, it’s a victory for the campaign.

The cynic in me still thinks that speech was very well planned and served two purposes: getting scientists expectations low and getting scientists to react and have their voice heard. Many people are even more skeptic than me and believe there were never plans for 25% cuts in science – it was just a way to get us to accept the 10% we seem to now face. Even if that is the case, this campaign got scientists, engineers and science supporters to stand up and actively participate, defend science and get their voice heard. That is a victory in itself.

As for the CSR and the future of science, serious worries persist: big science facilities have not been protected, higher education faces huge cuts, not to mention immigration cap, tuition fees and cuts across many social support areas. So a small, slightly bitter taste victory. But a victory never the less.

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5 Responses to Science is Vital – a personal look

  1. Tom Hartley says:

    I agree with this summary. Some important elements in the apparent success of the campaign were:
    avoiding infighting
    polite, non-political, evidence based case
    speed of action
    infrastructure (due to Gallomanor/Shane McCracken)
    dynamism of leaders
    political nous of e.g., Dr Evan Harris and CaSE

    Why did we have to do it? Because science had failed to make its key position clear to the general public over many years. With a few notable exceptions (Brian Cox and Colin Blakemore spring to mind) scientists have not made the effort to tell people why science is vital. We need to take this victory as a spur to get out of the lab and talk to the public, especially in schools and on the net.

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  3. James Thomas says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your summary as I too believe there was more than a little politik in the initial announcement and as you said last night, there were enough clues in that speech to see that Cable was leaving the door open.

    That said, the campaign was far more successful and maybe more importantly, inspirational than anyone appears to have imagined and that can only be a good thing. Thanks Paula, great post.

  4. amy charles says:

    A very nice summary, Paula, and if I may, I think the main good to have come out of this is a nascent and surprisingly large organization of scientists actually willing to speak out and communicate clearly *about their own industry*. This is rare. It isn’t scientists in the service of [moral political cause]; it isn’t sci communication about a particular bit of science. It’s about research science as industry: who you are, what you do. And that’s (I think) a good thing, because people (including MPs) don’t know, and currently have a choice between ignoring you and eyeing you with vague distrust as wizards, removed from the ordinary world.

    So the main question now, not to make Jenny’s hair fall out, is: What next?

    All that said, I would not be overly impressed by the late letter from your MP, which was (my cynical guess, as a former parliamentary intern and Congressional staffer) likely handled by a staff person when it became clear that these scientists were a bit noisy and better than expected with the media.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Tom, James and Amy.

    I also agree that, regardless of the outcome, it was always a huge victory for science to get scientists and science supporters to speak out and make their voice heard.

    For that, congratulations to everyone that got involved.

    PS: The letter was written on the same day as the lobby, so it seemed immediately obvious to me that it was all about realising we were not going away quietly. I think it was written AFTER he got my note asking to speak to him that same afternoon. But I do acknowledge the fact that he did reply. Some MPs haven’t…

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