08 September 2010

Austerity's Impacts on Science Policy

The fiscal austerity measures in the UK are going to be felt in the scientific research community, and the consequences are likely to be significant.  Fault lines are already developing.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, has an op-ed in today's FT in which he pleads for increased funding:
Even after a period of sustained growth, we are still investing only 1.79 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development. This is below Germany (2.54 per cent) and the US (2.68 per cent) – not to mention fast-developing countries such as South Korea (3 per cent).

The financial crisis has not prevented the US from proposing a 7.2 per cent rise in its science budget. Nor has it stopped Germany from investing an additional €18bn ($23bn) in the next five years or France from investing a further €35bn. China continues to make 20 per cent year-on-year increases in its research investment.
In stark contrast, in the government's first major speech on science policy Vince Cable, UK business secretary (pictured above), says:
There is a school of thought which says that government commitment to science and technology is measured by how much money it spends. Money is important both for the quantity and quality. But it is an input, not an output, measure. We could do more for less. It would be wrong to measure only how much money is invested in scientific research as a mark of our commitment.
As the era of austerity begins to bite the scientific community's approach to science policy -- in the UK and beyond -- is going to have to become much more realistic and sophisticated in a hurry.  Special pleading is not going to work.


  1. Backing the 1980s the head of the NSF (or maybe NAS) was testifying before a hearing about how shockingly poorly science was funded. One of the committee members asked a rare good question: How much is enough to properly fund science? The result was a comic deer in the headlights look. When pressed whether funding should be increased 10, 50, or a 100 per cent, all he could do was stutter. Not Big Science's finest hour.

  2. The spending as a % of GDP measure for government spending is so deceptive is it basically useless.

    First, the goverment's revenue stream which can be used to pay for such is not the same. It ranges from 26% for South Korea to 50% for Denmark. The UK is 40% so a 1.8% of GDP works out to a whopping 4.5% of tax revenue.

    Second, it is not clear that all countries report R&D spending in the same way (much like unemployment numbers). This makes between country comparisons quite problematic.

  3. This reinforces the universal principle that grovelling before managers or politicians will likely lead to a kick in the face.

    The Royal Society (totally funded by £45 million of British government money) put its full weight and majesty behind global warming. The public's reaction was "you are lying through your teeth".

    Poor little scientists, they can't win.

    P.S. the second last sentence needs re-edited.

  4. The problem is that, at least in the UK, every institution has its own interest at the forefront and there is no one to speak for the sector. The Royal Society is pretty much outside of this albeit the symbolic statement by its president is imprtant.

  5. I pray this sort of short sightedness does not reach the United States. Scientific research is unpredictable by nature and the more resource constrained it is, the less able it is to pursue new routes of investigation.

    Science and technology is the underpinning of our entire modern civilization. It is not a luxury.

  6. Not only economics is at work, there is the burgeoning view that much funding is wasted and that science has become just another special interest. Perhaps some of the excessive funding expended for climate modeling could be diverted to important fundamental science areas where the need and scientific honesty are greater.

  7. Science and technology underpins modern global civilization and its continued advance is the only truly sustainable path. While there are doubtless areas that could be made more efficient or less wasteful, funding is difficult to cut without sacrificing future growth because fruitful avenues of research are impossible to predict ahead of time. Britain cuts science at its own peril.

  8. Just think of the amount of money that could be spent on research in the UK if they stopped subsidising wind energy.......

  9. The blow back from both government and ordinary citizens to the Great AGW Scam will and should be severe.

    That "science" in general will be tarred & feathered with the same brush is unfortunate, but that is the price to be paid for the silent, or in many cases not so silent collusion of "science" in promoting the scam in pursuit of fame & funding.

    Time for "science" to pay that truth piper.

  10. note

    The Guardian trailed Vince Cable as a man of Gandhi like beneficence and wisdom, and Nick Clegg as a man of John Lennon quality anti establishment dudeness. Despite going to one of the very top private schools (Westminster), Oxford and being a former EU Bureaucrat !

  11. I suspect a lot of the citizenry would be angry if they found out how a lot of "science research" dollars were actually spent. They'd be even angrier if they found out how poor the quality is on a lot of that research.

    The idea that govt funded science is the underpinning of society is ridiculous. No one would argue that science and technological development is important. Massive spending by taxpayers on stupid boondoggles like the climate models, however, is not.

  12. I take issue with Stan. Sure, not every dollar spent leads to a breakthrough, but what do he expect, omniscience? The thing is, when you do science, you're trying to figure out something that no one has looked at before: there are no signs to tell you what to do. You end up exploring, and some trials just don't work out.

    It can be good research even if (in hindsight) it didn't lead to anything. Doing research is like being lost in the woods without a GPS and looking for a bakery. If you explore, you'll find one eventually, but it would be silly to expect your path to be straight.

  13. Vince Cable is, unfortunately, completely wrong. You cannot do more with less for the simple reason that you cannot predict the economic impact of science in advance.

    Heck, it's hard enough even predicting the economic impact of most operating companies a few years in advance. (That's what the stock market is all about.) And start-up companies? They're unpredictable. Many fail after spending much money.

    Science is the step before start-ups, and the outcome of a given research project is even harder to predict in detail. Suppose you could predict whether my research is going to lead to a start-up company or not. You probably can't, but if you could, you'd still be left in an unpredictable situation.

    I have a essay on the topic at http://kochanski.org/blog/?p=140 .