Science means business. Should it mean jobs too?
As the largest action by trade unions gets underway today, spare a thought for the scientists. As @professor_dave told PST on Twitter this morning, most scientists at York University are “definitely not” unionised. Indeed, according to German researcher Professor Thomas Rose, science has been pushed to the sidelines in the UK trade union movement.
Business appears to have annexed it. That will be no surprise to those scientists reading George Osborne’s Autumn Statement yesterday. A further £200m is great news and welcomed very loudly by CaSE (whose director cropped up all over the BBC yesterday) and Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse, who said: “We have world-class scientists and they need world-class places to do their work – you would not keep a Da Vinci in a garden shed.”
But look at where the money is going and you’ll see a very commercial slant. As David Willetts said yesterday, the new money “underpins important industrial sectors and will unlock private investment in new products and services, driving growth and creating high-tech, highly skilled jobs”. The government is clearly more concerned with industry than the individuals in lab coats doing the actual work (see how Willetts literally puts “private investment” before “jobs”).
So what of the trade unions in all of this? Well, according to Rose, who is knee-deep in a unique study of the attitude of trade unions to science, they are almost non-existent these days, compared to, for example, the unions’ major role in establishing Ruskin College in 1899. Rose delivered some preliminary results of his research in a talk on Monday night at UCL.
He pointed to the BIS report on “The allocation of science and research funding 2010/11 to 2014/15” (pdf), published last December. The consultation methodology in this report notes that:
Advice was sought from the following bodies, all of whom have high-level overviews of science and research:
The Royal Society
The Royal Academy of Engineering
The British Academy
The Council for Science and Technology
The Chief Scientific Advisers’ Committee
The Confederation for British Industry (CBI)
The Academy of Medical Sciences
Says Rose: “There is no mention of trade unions or the Trades Union Congress (TUC), only advice from employers’ organisations.”
Tim Page, senior policy officer at the TUC, told Rose: “We do operate in a climate in the UK where the government doesn’t come as naturally to trade unions for their opinions as happens in a lot of other European countries.”
And Alan Whitehead MP commented: “The pendulum has very much swung in UK policy making. There is a strong CBI lobby.”
One could certainly draw that conclusion from the chancellor’s recent announcements on science – commercialise this new wonder material, build more stuff for that new project, and so on. That said, new money always helps scientists to do more. And perhaps one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But it might be useful to consider for one moment what might happen if the UK continues to concentrate its science where the money is, rather than on massaging the brains behind the science itself.
In its 2008 document entitled “Hybrid cars and shooting stars” (pdf), the TUC noted: “Science budgeting requires money to be spent on long-term projects whose outcomes are simply impossible to envision. That same money could be spent on basic, immediate demands, like more hospital beds or schoolbooks, or on tax cuts. Yet we know that, if our competitors spend money on science and we do not, our economy and society will lose out. But we won’t know the extent of the loss until it is too late.”
Scientists grasp all too well the importance of science – not just to the economy but also, well, just because. That the trade unions are dodging this, according to Rose, and scientists are not unionising themselves, might inspire some serious navel-gazing today. On the other hand, another researcher pointed out on Twitter this morning that he has enough problems with EPSRC and policy without “unions muddying water too”.
Top image courtesy of Yewtree.