Norfolk is a long way away from anywhere, and if I were you, I shouldn't start from here. By the time you get to the outskirts of Cromer, any distinctions between science, beachcombing, social commentary, writing and animal husbandry have started to blur. When the process is complete, you know you've arrived at the End Of The Pier Show. So, welcome. Find somewhere to park your unicycle. Pull up a girrafe chair. Make yourself comfortable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Famous Victory

It all started with a blog post.

This one, to be precise, posted on 8 September, in which a postdoctoral researcher in London decided that whereas and notwithstanding inasmuch as which it was all good and fine to grumble about proposed cuts to the science budget, Someone Should Do Something About It.

So was born the ScienceIsVital pressure group which attracted - in short order - many of those whom any hostess would surely rank among the Great, the Good, and the Both At Once. A rally outside the Treasury on 9 October attracted around 2,000 people and media coverage; on 12 October the campaign lobbied Parliament; and on 14 October a petition bearing 33804 signatures and weighing several tons thirteen billion squillion gazillion electronvolts a policeman's lot was handed in to the address which the Guardian might have rendered as 1 7/8 Dowling Strune. Some people even wrote inflammatory blog posts and - whisper it soft - went as far as writing letters to their MPs and other notable political figures.

Somewhat coming up to rather less than two months later, or fewer, news has reached mes oreilles that the cuts to the UK science budget will be less than 10%, not the 25% or so that scientists had feared. The story is significant in its wording:
Normally, science spending does not have such a high profile when the Chancellor sets out the government's plans

it says.  But wait, there's more.

This year however it's high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as "long term and irreversible" damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

It's pretty certain where at least some of those 'strong representations' came from, and, whereas and so on and so forth the cuts to science will be deep, there will be many, many scientists in this country who will owe their jobs to that postdoctoral researcher who, one day,  put down her tiny Gilson pipette, stamped her tiny feet, and said 'No More Dr Nice Guy!'

I'd hate to close this blog without a moral or three, and here are at least six four. First, that whereas science is hardly regarded as terribly important by voters in Britain, the number of scientists illegible able to vote being, as it were, countable on the fingers of one thumb, science is usually treated as neither here nor there. What moved the wheels of power, I deem, was not that the scientists mounted such an effective action, so quickly - although there is no doubt that they did - but that they did it at all.

Politicians are used to dinosaurs trade union leaders sounding off that at the end of the day, speaking for themselves personally, the derisory offers of the management do not meet the aspirations of their members. Bo-RING.

Politicians are used to brainless bewoaded louts clad in home-spun flax accompanied by lurchers called Spliff on pieces of string, gurning directionlessly about the evils of capitalism before trashing MacDonalds. Yawn.

But what politicians are not used to is scientists saying anything at all except perhaps making the occasional rude retort (OOFTUGs to the first person to spot that particular allusion). I think that the campaign scored because it was articulate and respectful; polite, and persuasive. The grammar was employed by people who knew how to use it, and nobody befouled the Golden Arches or was accompanied by a lurcher called Spliff. Above all, it was surprising. If scientists rarely say anything comprehensible anything, it is usually because they only ever say things that need saying.

Now, regular readers of these emissions will realize that I am Tory to the core, True Blue, Through and Through, with views sufficiently dextral that Mrs Crox regularly refers to me in company as 'Genghis'. So what pleases me - which will no doubt escape the notice of others whose politics take, shall we say, a more sinistral hue - is here we have a government that is prepared to listen to a well-made argument, and which is prepared to be persuaded by it. In other words, to look again at the evidence, and, with due humility, to take more notice of that evidence than of their pre-existing beliefs, despite all political pressures to do otherwise. And that has to be an encouraging thought.


  1. THere's one thing to say:


    Actually, two things: the news isn't that it's 10%; rather that it's a freeze over four years, which means it's only a cut in real terms once we've accounted for inflation. Which can go down as well as up, of course.

  2. We have an old family friend (an FRS, no less) who has always been keen on bad puns. Ever since I started doing a Chemistry degree he has greeted me every Christmas (and every other time I see him) with the same quip about "witty retorts".

  3. I just left a comment and it was there and now it's gone so I'll try again, though it's not very articulate (though it is polite and persuasive):


    As you were.

  4. AWESOME! I mean, really, great.

    I'm so happy that it shows that if you put people together - after someone spoecial (Dr Rohn) has lit the tourch and brought a core together - things can get done. I'm equally sure that without big wigs and great scientists, and as you point out - very well spoken/written - it wouldn't have gone as well.

    (well, I think we can all be happy I didn't write the main thing ;) )

  5. PS I admire rpg's optimism, but I can't see inflation going below 0%...

  6. What wonderful news! There's cheering on this side of the pond, too, I assure you.

  7. Here's a rude retort: "You can't pass heat from the cooler to the hotter. You can try it if you like but you'd far better not-a"...

  8. When I was a little girl my mother used to sing me that song and I was always perplexed why my school ruler wasn't cold to the touch.

  9. OOFTUG to guentinsf - it's the song about the laws of thermodynamics by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, one of the best songs about science ever penned (up there with Tom Lehrer's song about the Elements, in my view). I loved the chant that runs through it - heat is work and work is heat!