British scientists need to adopt a positive tone


This is a shortened version of an Editorial in Nature ( 463, 402; 28 January 2010), which is free to access online.

On 11 January, a coalition of 20 leading British research universities published an editorial in The Guardian newspaper warning of impending calamity. If the spending cuts being proposed by the government are implemented, the authors asserted, the nation’s entire higher-education system, eight centuries in the making, could be undone in just six months.

Such alarmist statements have worked before. In an ordinary budget year, cries of falling skies and loss of leadership can pressure politicians to shift resources towards research. But the coming budget for Britain looks anything but ordinary. Politicians may wish to support science, but asking them to put research ahead of front-line government services such as policing and public health is not just unrealistic, it risks making scientists look petulant.

Rather than trying to convince politicians that the problem is pressing, researchers should prove to them that science can be a solution to the recession, by providing world-class education for its citizens and innovations that will set Britain apart from its competitors. They should also move the debate beyond the budget cuts, and into a broad consideration of how best to spend the limited funding that will be available.

This pro-science message will be effective only if politicians hear it again and again from all corners of the scientific establishment. At the moment, however, that seems far from happening. Most groups now mobilizing in support of science are fighting for their particular corner of the research enterprise. Fortunately, the tools for a more coherent effort are already in place. The Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK (CaSE) is a broad coalition of charities, universities and industry that promotes science. In the run-up to the UK election, CaSE is preparing a series of letters encouraging politicians to form a positive science agenda along the lines described above. Individual researchers should add their voices to the chorus by inviting local politicians to their campuses, and by signing on to CaSE’s agenda.

The positive tone will not be enough to shield British science entirely from the cuts that lie ahead: research is only one national need among many, and cannot claim a special entitlement. But done right, it can help to ameliorate the losses and ensure that science grows quickly whenever the nation begins its recovery.


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