Monday 15 November 2010

Research is vital!

Those of Matron's readers who are citizens of academia and/or members of the Twitterati will undoubtedly be aware of the hashtag #scienceisvital and the related campaign -fought by, among others, former LibDem MP Dr. Evan Harris - that was aimed at convincing the government to "lay out a supportive strategy for UK science and engineering" by "maintaining a level of investment at least in line with economic growth ".

The petition was signed by 36290 people - among them the names of many of the most eminent figures currently working in UK Higher Education - and ultimately led to science funding being treated rather more benevolently in the context of the recent comprehensive spending review (CSR) than many other areas.

A successful strategy, therefore, from which we could all learn? Certainly! And yet, despite the fact that Matron has followed the campaign with interest while it was in its most active phase, she could not bring her self to add her name to the pledge. Why is that?

The reason is that the petition, commendable as it was in its attempt to defend the science budget, focused merely on the funding for "science" in its most narrow definition, namely "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment". Natural sciences, in other words, or "science and technology" in more modern parlance.

Indeed, the petition itself mentions as the particular areas for which funding must be preserved "energy, medicine, infrastructure and computing". Although, many of the signatories came from the social sciences, arts and humanities communities, no mention was made of those disciplines in the petition and - as has become clear - they did not benefit in any way from the government's rethink in the CSR.

In Matron's opinion, the petition and the related campaign can therefore also be seen as an example for another development that was easily predictable and widely expected when news of severe cuts to the HE budget first came out: that rather than coming together and ganging up on a reluctant government in an attempt to convince it of the shortsightedness of its plans, the sector would engage in a divisive struggle in which each party would attempt to secure the biggest piece of an ever smaller cake. In this context we have seen old universities work against new universities, higher education versus further education and one discipline against the other. The only winner in this game has been the coalition government which has found it all to easy to get savage cuts to the arts and social sciences budgets through with minimum fuss while at the same time being able to point towards the science budget it (largely) maintained.

Make no mistake, science IS vital! Without it, we will not be able to overcome the challenges arising from threats like climate change and overpopulation. It's funding should be preserved and, if possible, increased.

But when asked by scientists to support the petition, Matron felt a little like she felt when, back in the early 90s, she moved to the UK from Germany as a (then more than now) politically active lesbian. Whereas in Germany, this group was politically more aligned with the feminist movement, in the UK, lesbians were part of the gay rights or queer movement. In practical terms this meant that, at the time, the political goals lesbians fought for and were expected to support included not only the fight against AIDS but also gay marriage. This was in open disregard of the fact that lesbians, with their "moving-in-on-the-second-date" kind of relationships were in the group least likely to be infected with the HIV virus and that feminism had worked on a critique of the institution of marriage for at least the last century.

In the end, Matron became an active volunteer for an HIV/AIDS charity - not because she was directly affected but because it was the right thing to do at the time with thousands of people dying alone and without the necessary support. But she always refused to go to any length to support the call for gay marriage. In the words of the inimitable Alison Bechdel, comic artist extraordinaire and observant chronicler of lesbian live throughout the 80s, 90s and noughties, there was no way she was going to be complicit in the enshrinement of coupledom as a privileged civil status given that there were, in her view at least, better ways to achieve equal treatment for everyone (for example, by abandoning, and not re-introducing, dear Mr Cameron, all solely marriage-related state benefits).

Matron's most interesting experience during that time was a conference ca. 1994 when she was on a panel with a high profile (female) member of gay rights group Stonewall. When asked about her views on why the lesbian movement in Germany preferred to align itself with feminist heterosexual women rather than gay men, Ms. Stonewall's responded that maybe the lesbian movement in Germany wasn't as far advanced yet as it was in the UK and the US. It was the simple arrogance of that statement which completly dismissed a political strategy on the basis of "backwardness" and which negated the many rational reasons its proponents may have had for choosing it, that took Matron's breath away then and that still appalls her now.

Because asking someone else to support your cause because it is the right thing to do, is one thing. Asking them to support it despite the fact that doing so may actively harm their own interests or political goals - and be that only because those interests or goals will be forgotten about or set aside while time and engery is spent on fighting for yours - is quite another.

So, coming back to the point Matron was trying to make:

Science is an important area of research that deserves our support and government funding. At the same time, as every HE researcher knows only too well, science has had a better deal in public funding compared to any other area of research for these past 10 years at least because science gets good PR and politicians up and down the country seem to feel that they can support spending money on the development of a new widget much more easily than, say, the teaching of drama, philosophy or sociology. How is any of the latter to compete with research to find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's?

But demanding that the science budget should be maintained will almost inevitably mean that the budget of other research areas will suffer. Areas that are equally vital, like:
  • The social sciences that will ultimately have to figure out how and to what extent society will be able to absorb, integrate and adapt to the new technologies that the scientist will come up with with.
  • Economics that will enable us to "follow the money" and to figure out who benefits from new research and developments and how that benefit can be distributed in a more equitable and socially beneficial fashion.
  • The arts because - as Winston Churchill is alleged to have said when asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort - if not for the arts, then what are we fighting for?
It is openly known in the research discipline of which Matron is a member, that over the next five to ten years at least, research funding will either have to come from Europe or from collaborative projects with members of STEM disciplines, which will allow us access to their funding pots. This will be easier for those who, like Matron and her ilk, are research active in technology law than it will be for those of her colleagues who specialise in family law or criminology or constitutional law. But that does not mean that these subjects are any less important for society or that they deserve any less support.

This is a game of divide and conquer and by singling out one area, venue or means of research over another we are playing directly into the government's hands.

So, dear scientists, Matron would love to support your petition, because she thinks it is the right thing to do. But if you ever re-open it for new signatories, would you mind changing its title?

From "Science is vital" to "Research is vital"?

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