April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last week, I travelled to UCL to meet Imran Khan, head of CaSE. Imran is an alumnus of the Imperial College Science Communication MSc course and was previously a researcher for former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. As Director of CaSE, Imran deals with a whole range of issues surrounding science policy. Today, Imran talks about Imperial College’s recent decision to cancel its CaSE membership…

AP:       Were you surprised by Imperial College’s decision to end its CaSE membership?

I was, yes.

CaSE has got a slightly odd funding structure in that we receive absolutely no Government funding. Obviously, if we did then that would drastically limit what we could say about Government. It means that we couldn’t criticise them and we couldn’t have a go at them when we needed to. So, even if it were to be offered — which I doubt it would be, because I hope we’ve probably pissed them off too much already — there’s no way we’d take it.

That means we’re entirely reliant on donations from the sector. Over the past twenty-five years we’ve been kept going by the sector as a whole. We’ve got about one hundred organisational members now. That’s over forty   universities; about fifteen companies, including people like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca ARM Holdings; lot’s of institutes; and even some charities, including people like Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Campaign.

We’ve got everyone from Rolls Royce to the National Farmer’s Union. I don’t think anyone else can count all of these organisations amongst their supporters. The only thing that knits them all together is that they’ve got an interest in making sure that research and development in the UK is as good as it can be. So, we don’t say farming’s fantastic, we don’t say you’ve got to invest in GM, we don’t say you’ve got to go and do certain research. What we do say to the Government is that you’ve got to make sure that science and engineering are a political priority for a huge range of reasons.

There’s almost a slight element of tragedy of the commons, whereby every organisation interested in science and engineering benefits from the work we do, almost regardless of whether or not they’re a member of CaSE. Part of the work we do is improving the level of science and maths education. We really have a go at Government and tell them that they’ve really got to make education in this area as good as it can be. Actually, we’re really having some issues with this at the moment in terms of the way they’re changing structures. I imagine every single organisation that relies on getting good, well-trained scientists and engineers coming out of schools and universities benefits from the work we do. Of course, they get that regardless of whether they give us a few grand a year or not.

Consequently, we’re very reliant on the fact that the science and engineering community is very closely knit. Everyone knows each other, everyone gets on with each other, there’s a real sense of community. For example, we’re here at UCL [University College London] because UCL are one of our members, but in addition to that they actually put us up as well for almost nothing, which is really kind of them. It’s not because by us being here UCL think that they will suddenly get 90 per cent of our work being directed by them, it’s because they recognise that if they weren’t doing this, and if no-one else were prepared to do it, CaSE just wouldn’t be here — we just wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do. So, it was surprising that, after years and years of being a member, Imperial suddenly decided that actually — although they still like our work (which they say they do) — they no longer want to help us do it. So, yes, I thought it was surprising.

AP:       I’ve done a little bit of research and found that for the 2009-2010 year, Imperial College was awarded grants totalling £96m for research, as well as a further £93m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. I assume your membership fees must be absolutely tiny compared to these figures, right?

Looking at the breadth of our membership, the absolute smallest members, like the charities and other tiny societies pay just £1,000. The absolute biggest organisations, including the biggest companies and the biggest universities, pay us up to £6,000. We don’t tell people what the actual amounts are that individual organisations pay, but they’re all within that range.

AP:       So, you’re membership fees really seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the amounts of funding Imperial College receives each year. In light of this, could you even hazard a guess at what you think the rationale behind their decision might have been?

What we hear is that it was a difficult time for everyone in the sector. If I’m perfectly honest, when we were sitting around the table about a year ago thinking about membership fees, we were concerned because we recognised that this was a really difficult time for everyone in the sector, and the argument we were making is that when time is difficult you need CaSE more than ever.  But it could also go the other way. A lot of our organisations could have said that, although they value what CaSE does, they just can’t afford to pay for things anymore and cut back.

We were lucky in that people, Imperial aside,  said that ‘actually we’ve got to make sure that the sector sticks together and fights its corner’. Since I’ve started, I think we’ve brought in about twenty-five new members, which, given that we’re now at about one hundred, is actually a pretty big increase. I hope this reflects that people have found CaSE’s work to be pretty valuable. Also, a lot of those new members have been places that you perhaps wouldn’t expect, for example: Loughborough University, Breast Cancer Campaign…not organisations that are of the stature of Imperial, basically. In terms of the gulf between what they’re doing and their income and what it costs to pay us, what we’ve heard is that Imperial made a decision to cut back on lots of different subscriptions. Unfortunately we were one of those subscriptions.

Nobody is saying that it’s just CaSE that was picked on, and they’ve not a vendetta against us in particular. I’d just have hoped that, given the close relationship we’ve had with Imperial in the past, we could have changed the decision, but it wasn’t to be.