Factions. Probably not the future of science
All day there’s been a surreal blend of funeral rites and jovial camaraderie in the face of an evil monolith based in Swindon.
There is apparently no limit to the number of faults the protestors can find with how the EPSRC allocates funds – from the “circumvention” of peer review to the allegation that excellence is no longer a funding criterion (both denied by the EPSRC).
And almost everyone I’ve spoken to is optimistic that they’ll be able to bring down the EPSRC. Or, at least, convince enough MPs to sign an Early Day Motion. They need around 40. I just heard that Menzies Campbell confirmed that he would put his name to it.
But I feel that regardless of how much enthusiasm bonded all these chemists together today, their protest won’t make much of an impact. The EPSRC’s controversial Shaping Capability plan, the subject of today’s protest, was agreed with government and signed off by its own council of senior scientists and engineers. If David Willetts responds at all to today’s stunt, he’s likely to scream “Haldane!” and run away from all this mess.
But the biggest thing standing in the way of the 100 people today are, well, all the other scientists out there. I believe today’s protestors when they tell me that they’ve received many emails of support from colleagues who are not prepared to risk funding or reputation by making a stand. And they did manage to mobilise more than just chemists – I found physicists and mathematicians here too.
But I’ve also heard a lot of very sensible arguments from beyond today’s group that what science needs right now is unity.
In the run up to the next spending review, which could be as little as one year away, scientists need to make evidence-based arguments for science as a whole. This is what the Science is Vital movement achieved in 2010. Now we’re in 2012 and science is splitting into factions.
James Wilsdon, professor in science and democracy at SPRU, puts it thus:
Rather than continuing to escalate this row (most of which is motivated by sour grapes from a few research groups who consider themselves to have lost out) we need to draw a line under all this and focus attention instead on the real battle, which is maintaining, and ideally increasing, overall public investment in research next time around.
Today also marks the launch of Science for the Future, which states its aims as broader than just this EPSRC issue. But it is not yet clear whether the group’s leadership will be able to rely on today’s protestors in the bigger fight that is sure to come.