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The future of Science for the Future. Discuss.

May 17, 2012
Professor Tony Barrett, Science for the Future, 15 May 2012

Professor Tony Barrett outside Downing Street on Tuesday

When Professor Tony Barrett pulled a petition out of a coffin on Tuesday, he wanted to start a debate. And boy has he got one.

Twitter, the Guardian, the Telegraph and various blogs have been alive with open discussion about the EPSRC issue and, to a greater degree, the tactics of Barrett’s Science for the Future (SFTF) campaign. My post from Tuesday has been the most visited and commented on in Purse String Theory’s history.

So in this post I intend to synthesise some of the comments of the community in order to move the debate onto how scientists should ‘do’ political action. Pick a point from the list below, and have your way with it in the comments and on Twitter.

1. Factions v friends

Tuesday’s campaigners used the EPSRC controversy to kick start a debate about the overall impact agenda, leading to criticisms of factionalism. Athene Donald commented: “They are not representing all of ‘us’ and many of ‘us’ do not agree with their stunt yesterday.” In science, can factions ever be useful?

Here’s a tweet to illustrate this question:

2. The political palate

One commenter invoked Britt Holbrook to argue that “if scientists and science funders don’t work together, politicians are likely to react by cutting science budgets”. So if scientists fall out with their funders, is it politically palatable for them to argue that science is separate from society? If not, how comfortable are scientists in relying on economic indicators of ‘success’?

3. Mob mentality

If a relatively small number of scientists devise a political stunt that is supported by a few hundred other scientists, the wider group may be seen to stand for everything the organisers argue (I’m thinking of this furore over Barrett’s nod to Stalin). Does collective action override or undermine an individual’s position?

4. The future of Science for the Future

Every campaigner I spoke to on Tuesday said that the coffin stunt was just a start, and that SFTF planned to build a membership for the ongoing fight for reform of the funding regime. I’m interested to see these concrete plans and a response to the comment that the group needs a “PR face-lift”. And while the debate has raged in the blogosphere and on Twitter this week, where was Barrett?

The EPSRC today published a response letter (scroll down) in the Telegraph to SFTF’s letter on Tuesday. In what looks like the community engagement the EPSRC is alleged to have avoided, the letter picks up on some of the criticisms railed against SFTF by calling for unity among scientists in the run up to the next spending review.

The comments below remain open 24/7 for our very own community engagement. I’m thinking of somehow capturing this debate for an article in my ongoing Guardian series, Talking Science to Power. Ideas welcome.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Stokes permalink
    May 17, 2012 7:10 pm

    Speaking of factions and 2010, I recall the RAEng’s contribution to the Science and Research Budget review that year led by the Director General Science and Research. It said inter alia, ‘particle physics[...] makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation’. It drew a similar kind of response to the let’s-not-fall-out-at-this-critical-time one that the fake funeral has prompted. I seem to remember the Royal Society being very diplomatic in public, while knives were being sharpened behind the scenes. According to the Sheer Lunacy blog, behind Science for the Future are ‘scientists and mathematicians from all branches of the scientific community’. I wonder whether ‘scientist’ and ‘scientific’ are being used here in the expansive way they sometimes are (whether quite consiously or not) to embrace engineering academics or in the narrow sense that sits more comfortably with the protestors’ attachment to basic science. I wonder what the RAEng makes of all this too.

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  1. Sometimes scientists have a duty to swap the pipette for the placard « « News in BriefsNews in Briefs

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