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Activist: “Dissatisfaction has been brewing for a long time”

April 26, 2012

Here’s the latest on the debate over the nascent Science for the Future lobby group and its forthcoming protest against the EPSRC, planned to land in Parliament Square on May 15. The words below constitute a kind of mission statement I received from Professor Stephen Clark, who’s one of the two directors of the new group.

Much of the discussion on your blog seems to revolve around the issue of why we need a new campaigning group. Clearly, the spark that has ignited the current campaign is the EPSRC Capability Shaping exercise, but for many of us involved in forming Science for the Future our dissatisfaction has been brewing for a very long time.

There are clear systemic problems with the way science is funded in the UK and, as far as I know, no other campaigning organisation is dealing with these issues specifically – if there is, then that organisation has not been particularly vocal in putting forward its case since the Capability Shaping exercise was announced. I am a reluctant ‘activist’ and was motivated to become involved in setting up a campaigning group by my sheer frustration with the way our funding system is evolving.

Although Capability Shaping is our immediate and most pressing concern, we have a much wider and more general agenda. What we are seeking to do is open up a debate and establish whether the scientific community in the UK and the wider public is happy for organisations such as EPSRC, either unilaterally or at the behest of politicians, to dictate to the scientific community what areas they can work in and subvert the basic principles of peer review in the process.

Our view is that the current problems with EPSRC result from the lack of an effective oversight role by senior research scientists, the failure of EPSRC to consult with the whole scientific community in any meaningful way BEFORE taking major decisions and a larger, more general and long-term problem with how politicians view science and the scientific method. For the dangers of evolving to a highly managed (bureaucratic), state-directed system with top-down dictacts coming from politicians and civil servants, one only has to look what happened to scientific research in communist countries prior to 1990. The advent of such a system is something that everyone involved with Science for the Future wants to prevent.

I should add that we do recognise the important work of pressure groups such as Science is Vital, particularly at the last spending review, and clearly we will want to coordinate our future efforts with such organisations when dealing with issues of mutual concern.

Expect more on this topic over the coming days. Meanwhile, the debate continues on Twitter at #science4thefuture and @PSTtweets.

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