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Is this new science funding lobby needed beyond May 15?

April 25, 2012

The forthcoming EPSRC protest march on Parliament Square has certainly sparked conversation among the science policy community. And some people are questioning whether the rally on May 15 can lay a firm foundation for the proposed new lobby group behind it, Science For The Future.

“It’s great to see more scientists getting active,” says Jennifer Rohn, the UCL cell biologist who built Science is Vital from the ground up during the government’s spending review. “They seem focused on a sub-discipline of science – [it’s] sometimes good to specialise.”

But not everyone is convinced that a new group has been thought through. “If this new science lobby is just focused on the EPSRC debate,” said SPRU’s James Wilsdon, “it strikes me as a really dumb idea.”

Group mentality

When I told him that I understood the EPSRC dispute to be but a launch vehicle for the new group, he asked: “Then why not add their energy to existing groups like CaSE? Not as if they are groaning under an excess of funding or volunteers.” Physicist Athene Donald backed Wilsdon up, asking on Twitter: “Why is another campaigning group needed?”

That’s a key question, and probably one to ask Imperial’s Tony Barrett and Glasgow’s Stephen Clark. Both are named as directors in the company registration documents filed for Science For The Future last week. I’ve emailed them the question and will post the replies when they come.

For now, the group’s main mission is essentially a PR exercise. The plans for May 15 include a “photo stunt”, likely to be dreamed up by the PR fun factory Barrett and Clark have hired, Champollion. The firm specialises in launching campaigns for organisations hoping to shape public policy. So make no bones about it: unlike Science is Vital, the Science For The Future day on May 15 is not grassroots.

In hiring Champollion, Science For The Future must have some money in the bank. I’m still waiting on a reply about the funding model. The consultant I spoke to there wasn’t sure who’s paying the firm, but did say specifically that they’re still trying to find funds for the planned photo stunt. Again, when the organisers get back to me on this, I’ll post the details.

Lobbying for the future

It’s still early days for this fledgling body, and the focus right now remains on the EPSRC issue. I won’t go into details about scientists’ displeasure with the EPSRC, because it is covered in full on Sheer Lunacy by Dr Paul Clarke. But the choice of Parliament as venue for the rally is a curious one. One source told me that it suggests the campaigners are asking MPs to contravene the Haldane Principle and involve themselves in how the research councils award funds. Is that any worse than the way that research councils are already directed by government policy?

Moreover, if the EPSRC matter really is just a launch vehicle, how will a new group that is focussed more broadly on science and the future maintain momentum?

If the outspoken scientists get what they want after May 15 (be it the sacking of EPSRC boss David Deply or an overhaul of the council’s committee), will Science For The Future dissipate before it’s even properly begun?

Barrett and Clark may wish to continue campaigning for improvements to science funding, but they’ll need their peers to stay on the battlefield long after the fight against a single, increasingly isolated research council.

Follow the conversation on Twitter at #science4thefuture and @PSTtweets.

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