Science: Dismayed, by a big majority

Scientists feel insecure and undervalued, and do not expect their lot to improve after the election, they tell Charles Arthur
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The Independent Online
The political adverts - oh, haven't you seen them? - say we have the choice of "BOOM OR GLOOM". Readers' responses to The Independent's interviews with science spokesmen for the three main political parties are less upbeat. With two days to go, British scientists see it as a simpler choice - GLOOM or GLOOM.

Why the depressed tone? Because of short-term contracts, cuts in funding, intensified struggles for grants, and, especially, the impression that their work is not valued. It's odd that this election campaign has aired arguments about long-term policies (the single European currency, pensions, funding for the National Health Service, education), but science has not been on the agenda. All three parties pushed it briefly, but it submerged under the media tide about Europe.

We never even saw a politician mugging up to Dolly the cloned sheep - surely Britain's proudest scientific achievement of the past five years. Why not? Because managers at the Roslin Institute, where the work was done, are not favourably disposed to the Tories; and the Labour Party could not celebrate something achieved under it rivals.

Perhaps the new millennium will bring a change of attitude among the public. One thing is sure: it is increasingly important that everyone understands the importance of science to the economy (and so the wages in their pockets and health care in their hospitals). If you don't vote on Thursday, you can't complain about what happens afterwards.

The following are edited comments from readers and scientists on the political choice facing us.

Professor Ron Brown, school of mathematics, University of Wales, Bangor

The complacency of Ian Taylor as Minister of State responsible for science and technology is appalling. He has no concern for the general demoralisation resulting from the previous and planned declines in overall funding for science and engineering in universities.

His government has determined for the last 16 years, and into the indefinite future, that the scientists and engineers who procure increased wealth or quality of life shall share in none of it, but instead have had, and will have, their opportunities decreased by from 3 to 7 per cent per annum, through cuts in the general allocations to higher education.

When Ministers are asked about the cuts, they chant the mantra: "It is perfectly reasonable to expect public services to make efficiency gains of 3 per cent (or 5, or 7...) per annum." If this were applied to Parliament, we'd lose between 20 and 45 MPs every year for the foreseeable future. Why not?

What seems to Mr Taylor to be an "efficiency gain", in practice means academic staff have fewer technical and secretarial staff, and do more routine things themselves.

Mike Kenward, freelance journalist and former editor, New Scientist

Unfortunately, Adam Ingram only confirmed my doubts about the wimps in the Labour Party. How bland can you get?

I was particularly amused by his comment that he is a "non-scientist who is absolutely enthused by science and technology, and has been ever since I was at school". So how come he went on to study something other than science? What was he by training? A lawyer? [He was a computer programmer and engineer with the South of Scotland Electricity Board, then a trade union representative - CA]

Dr Andy Woodward, school of biological sciences, University of Aberystwyth

As a contract researcher with no job security on an endless helter-skelter of temporary contracts in an overall atmosphere of real-terms cutbacks every year, I find none of them do anything at all for me. The only thing that would make me look favourably on any of 'em would be a more permanent (or less Russian-roulette) career structure for researchers.

For my part, when the contracts run out here (maybe in October) I am expecting to be unemployed (at my age - mid-30s) for the rest of my life and living on my savings, since government support is being deliberately made as much of a pain in the arse as possible to claim. Since no political party expresses any interest in my problems, I have exactly the same degree of interest in theirs. There are simply no parties in UK politics now, in the past or foreseeable future that have any relevance at all to me. I voted once, about 20 years ago. I don't expect I'll ever bother again.

John Mulvey, executive director, Save British Science

We have heard a lot recently about sovereignty, but very little about science, engineering and technology. Yet greater investment in these, with education, underwrites all the promises made by politicians to deliver a growing economy, high employment and improved quality of life.

British science is outstanding, and highly productive. But the research base is not receiving the resources necessary to maintain international competitiveness, and is failing to attract enough of the best of our youth.

Real sovereignty is easily lost by a nation that lets control of too many jobs pass to Japan, Germany, the US and Korea. The SBS message to the next government is simple: invest for the future by investing in success; if you fail us, the damage will be irreparable.

Sir Tom Blundell FRS, head of Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge

Ian Taylor reminds us yet again that funding for the science base has increased in the past 10 years. This is true if we consider funding against a retail price index, but less impressive if salaries of skilled professionals are the measure.

But the Government has never been keen to advertise the considerable reductions of funding through departments. The drastic cuts in our institutes and agencies have led to huge reductions of staff over the past decade. The Agriculture and Food Research Council institutes had more than 6,000 staff in the mid-Eighties, but have only just over 3,500 now. More than 1,000 of these went with the near-market review seven years ago, which systematically sacked any staff member who was researching in an area that might have been close to a useful product. Despite claims that these areas would be picked up by private industry, this has not occurred. This is "market failure" under any definition.

Although science tends to be less party-political than many areas of policy, it can be seen from the interview with Adam Ingram that there is ample evidence that a change of government would be good for science.

Neil Hollow, scientist

Mr Taylor's answers about provision of basic equipment were unsatisfactory. My understanding is that a number of companies are doing less research in Britain for this reason. The decline does depend on which measure you use, I agree, but I'm not sure I believe the ones from the OST.

Mr Taylor came across as a nice guy doing an impossible job - representing science in Britain in the late 20th century. But the Tories have cut the science budget, however they wrap it up, and for that alone they won't get my vote. The Labour man didn't promise anything. However, I and most scientists I know will be voting Labour. I believe they will be keen to encourage more private sector spending on R&D.

ED Le Cren, environmental scientist

Having been involved with basic and strategic environmental research for over 50 years, I read the three statements on science policy with interest, but also with dismay. There is no doubt that there has been a reduction in support for basic research over more than a decade; but that is not the only adverse trend.

It is often forgotten that you cannot give a scientist a contract to make a new discovery. The best you can do is appoint a creative person, give him or her security and practical support, keep him in informal touch with the world outside the laboratory, then let him do what he thinks is most scientifically rewarding for 10 or 20 years. It has been shown that this is the most efficient and cheapest way to get good basic and strategic research done.

Ian Taylor shows little recognition that anything is wrong with British science, and would continue with the policies that have caused its decline; Adam Ingram seems reluctant to expound any policy or change the Conservatives' spending pattern. Nigel Jones shows more awareness of the problems and would provide an extra pounds 150m annually for apparatus, as well as try to increase the share of gross domestic product devoted to science; but, as it is unlikely that he will be the new Minister for Science, it appears this election will do nothing for British science, or improve the low morale of UK scientists.

Professor Luke Georghiou, PREST, Manchester University

Ian Taylor used our report on the state of university research equipment to argue that the problem of investment is not as severe as it was claimed to be. In fact, the report found that 79 per cent of science and engineering departments were unable to perform critical experiments because of a lack of funding for equipment. At least pounds 500 million is needed to restore the position.Those who think this unrealistic may be interested to know that the Canadian government has recently announced an $800 million fund to upgrade equipment in universities. There, it is seen as part of the infrastructure of society, like effective road and transport systemsn