As the dust settles on the Spending Review, scientists breathe a collective sigh of relief: science has been spared the axe. In the months leading up to Wednesday, Science is Vital put out its feelers and collated 1600 postcards written to George Osborne pleading for him to keep science on a secure footing. However, there is far more to how successful and healthy British and Global Science is than the size of the “Science Budget”: it is an issue that stretches from equity of evidence collection through to large-scale and small-scale policy decisions.

  • Who chooses what science gets funded?
  • What type of people are able to become scientists?
  • Are they secure, with high well-being?
  • Can they challenge the powerful and stand up for truth?
  • Does science and scientific thinking shape everybody’s lives both in how they think and how the society around them operates?

These are the true measures of the health of science and not all of them are in a good or improving condition.

Scientists have long been told that to remain ‘objective’ and ‘independent’ they must shun any involvement with politics. There are two big political events that have shaken this: ‘austerity’ and the threat of Brexit. The scientists of “Science is Vital” briefly stepped their toe into the ‘political’ arena, and owing to the large power of the scientific voice, they have got what they wanted: money for science. The sad truth is that there is a lot more to science and science policy then how much money gets poured in. We must not rest on this success, but must step up our defense of science in the broadest sense. The other issue facing science highlights this: Scientists for EU has recently had to set up because the scientific reality that international collaboration benefits us all is being threatened by political turmoil.

Much of this hands-off approach to politics comes from two core beliefs. The first being by not engaging in ‘politics’ science maintains independence. The reality can be summed up with a quote from Paulo Freire:

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

The closest thing we can get to independence is by full engagement with society and its norms and structures of power. We must do some deep introspection about the hidden assumptions we may be making as a result of our own cultural and societal framing, as well as how our science will be used. This also includes which issues are hotly research and others which aren’t.

The other belief is that science should not be disruptive of society. These beliefs are both fallacious and relatively modern. Science has a long and proud history of being disruptive. Progress and disruption go hand in hand: how can you invent the internet without destabilising the telecommunications industry? It continues with the next generation of science and technology: how can we decarbonise our energy supply without disrupting the carbon-intensive business model of the fossil fuel companies? Or insure a peaceful, nuclear-free future without disrupting the military-industrial companies? The answer is you can’t and the real truth of science is: the things we research now are the tools we will have in the future and as the old idiom goes “If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail”. The very choices we make in research are intimately linked with how society will function today and in the future. They will dictate what tools we have available to face the challenges ahead.

If science becomes little more than cheap outsourced labour for the current business models then ‘science’ will be all but dead the future of the human race won’t look too bright either. That’s why if science wants to survive in anything resembling the science that gave us the advantages we have then we have to fight the battles for science across the society. Below I have listed just a few I’m aware of (I’m sure there are many I’m not aware of: let us know) I hope you can join us in pushing for a science that loudly fights positive and progressive change, building a better future for all not just the few.

  • Climate Change Policy: The science is clear that we must get serious about cutting our emissions. The government has announced a move from coal to gas requiring large-scale and successful use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), however, the government has also cut their competition to develop such technology. Renewables have flourished globally over the last 6 years, are massively popular with the public and yet the government continues to destabilise the fledgling industry.
  • Air Pollution: The UK’s air quality, particularly in London, continually exceeds international legal limits. Despite this the government has still not ruled out Heathrow expansion, dragged their feet on railway electrification and pledged far more road space (known to increase traffic jams and car usage!)
  • Education Policy: This government’s education policy flouts evidence on many levels. The push to convert more and more schools to academies has largely ignored the evidence that strong accountability is needed (Other evidence for the similar Charter Schools program in the US found that postcode lottery was worsened and school performance was minimal if existent.).  The focus on testing and exclusive teaching of phonics for reading also goes against the evidence on effective learning of reading.
  • Drug Policy: Government suppressed evidence of effectiveness of ‘tough’ drug laws as an effective means of reducing drug use.
  • Science Policy: The result of the Nurse Review and the unseen McKinsey review seem to have paved the way for greater political control over the research agenda and more careful control of science and scientists.
  • Higher Education: The green paper on higher education and the Teaching Excellence Framework have signaled some worrying trends and beliefs. They seem to suggest, further increase in fees, wider move towards student being consumers and more insecure employment for teachers and scholars.

I’m sure there are many I’ve missed: Get in touch and join us!

Science and Society: What next after the Spending Review

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