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 the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Science is Vital Campaign

AP:       Was last year’s Science is Vital Campaign a success?

Going back to my previous answer about science, and evidence-based policy…we hear again anecdotally from various people that the campaign did make a difference — we hear a lot of the things made a difference. The trouble is there’s no way to re-run the experiment. It’s not as if we could do the entire campaign again and not do the editorials, or not do the protests…it’s impossible to know what exactly triggered the decision in the end. Of course, even when you ask people in  HM Treasury — which we have done — what difference did it make, it’s not really in their interest to say here’s exactly what made the difference, because they want to be able to keep their cards close to their chest!

Personally, I like to think the campaign did make a difference…I like to think that everything we did made a difference. We tried everything: we tried getting people on the streets, we tried getting letters in the newspapers, we tried making sure that places like Newsnight and all those kinds of different outlets were running these stories. We really lobbied everyone, from scientists all the way up to civil servants and ministers. Even the Prime Minister was lobbied by people we know.  We got the decision we got. Most importantly, in doing so, we tried everything possible, we left no stone unturned. So, to me that means we’ve got to assume that it did make a difference – otherwise we seriously risk getting it wrong next time.

AP:       Has your view of the settlement UK science received under the Comprehensive Spending Review changed in light of recent inflation figures?

Well, the most important thing was probably the announcement on capital spending. When the spending review was unveiled, the Government only announced the resource allocation and they did something quite clever in that they said they were freezing the science budget in cash terms, but they redefined what the science budget is. Previously, the science budget consisted of the research council spending, plus some other allocations …but importantly it included both the resource side and the capital side. Now, it no-longer includes the capital, but they’ve moved in the higher education resource funding.

A couple of months after the Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government slashed capital spending across the board by about fifty per cent, which is pretty huge. I don’t know whether you’d call it a sleight of hand, but they were certainly intelligent in how they used language in communicating their decision-making.

It was all transparent though; all the figures were there, so they definitely didn’t mislead anyone in terms of the actual numbers they were putting around. I simply think that the language they used gave the impression that the decision was better than it actually was. Now, we’re getting to the stage where we’ve seen what the capital cuts have been, we’re seeing that in some of the departments funding isn’t as high as we’d hoped it would be for research, inflation is going up and what’s clear is that it’s going to be a very difficult two-to-four years…we’re very concerned.

AP:       One thing which struck me during the campaign was the way in which the arguments you made were framed purely in terms of the economic benefits of science. I appreciate the necessity of ‘speaking the language of Whitehall’, especially when trying to convince the treasury to spare science and engineering from the cuts, but are you at all concerned that the grander ideal of ‘science for science’s sake became lost in this debate? Was this framing of the debate in purely economic terms a deliberate tactic and do you think there is any danger of us, as a society, commoditising science?

It was a deliberate tactic…we decided fairly early on in summer that this was how we were going to approach things. I think it was a fairly well-informed decision in that we knew the Treasury was starting to make all of its decisions about public spending, based purely on the economy. The overriding political climate was — and it still is to an extent — that public spending is at a premium; we’ve got to kick start the economy, we’ve got to get Britain growing again. You know, whatever speech you read at the time by Osborne, Cameron, Clegg, etc., that message was really front and centre. Thus, we had to couch our arguments in the language they were using. They’re the ones holding all the cards; they’re the ones who get to decide what happens. So, if we don’t speak their language, we’ve really got no excuse if the decision goes the wrong way.

Although, to be honest, I had the same concerns. The reasons that I’m passionate about science aren’t because it generates pounds; I like it because it advances society and it advances humanity. The main reason that politicians are supporting science may well be because of the economic arguments, but that doesn’t mean that the by-product of that won’t be that we get everything else that we want from it as well…we’ll still get the advancement of human knowledge, we’ll still get highly-trained people coming out of our universities, we’ll still hopefully break down the barriers of knowledge. I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.