On Tuesday a funeral cortege pulled up outside the UK’s Westminster parliament and the mourners pulled out a wreath depicting ‘Science’. Some 100 protesters observed this as part of their protest against the ‘Death of British Science’.
The protest saw the launch of the group ‘Science for the future’ who used this event to highlight what they see as the injustice of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Research Council’s new policy for distributing funding.
But was this a good move? Looking from 14,000 miles away I’m having my doubts.
In 2010 I, with a thousand other scientists, marched on Westminster as part of the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign. We had been motivated by the prospect of devastating cuts to the science budget and spurred into action by cries of ‘No more Dr nice guy’. The Science is Vital team delivered a petition signed by 30,000 scientists and engineers to the treasury.
It was the politest rally ever, a very enjoyable day out; I even took Jupiter for a walk. What I loved about the ‘Science is Vital’ rally was that it didn’t matter if you were a biologist, an astronomer or even an organic chemist; we were there to point out that Britain needs science.
And it worked. Instead of cutting science the UK government froze the budget. OK, not ideal but far better than what had been touted.
My unease about Tuesday’s protest was that it was it was a specific gripe at the way some physicists and chemists receive their funding. As valid as this gripe may be, to tout it as the ‘Death of British Science’ seemed unnecessary and potentially damaging hyperbole. I’m sure those who spent Tuesday working an 18 or so hour day in the lab would agree with me.
Organisations like ‘Science is Vital’ and the Australian group ‘Discoveries need Dollars’ show that grassroot campaigns can effectively mobilise the scientific community, with great effect.
The message that I think Australia science should take out of this all is we should not be complacent. It was a bit of a mixed picture from the science budget, and if the recent uncertainty over the funding for the synchrotron has anything to go by, scientists cannot rest on their laurels.
Governments are facing many more pressures from an ever-more-squeezed pot of money. We need to be telling the public and politicians alike why we are important and not just taking it for granted they know this.