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Extended Backstage Interviews at Science is Vital Rally


It’s no surprise that here at Cosmic Genome we know that science is incredibly vital to our every day lives.

The British government is sadly, yet again, threatening science research with cuts, and that’s after no increase in funding in the past five years. The Science is Vital campaign is trying to do something about this.  From their site: Over the last five years, real-terms funding of science in the UK has declined by 5%. Britain now spends only 0.44% of GDP on publicly funded research and development, the lowest level of investment of any of the G8 countries. And there’s worse to come: the government is threatening cuts of 25%–40%.  If we don’t act now, there’s a serious risk that the UK will lose its leading international position in science. More worryingly, our economy won’t be equipped to face the challenges of the future. We need your help.

At the end of October there was a large gig and rally supporting the campaign at Conway Hall.  The night was hosted by Matt Parker of Festival of the Spoken Nerd and featured lots of speakers from the world of science, many of whom are regular Cosmic Genome contributors themselves, including Lucie Green, Adam Rutherford and Simon Singh.  You can watch a video of the whole event here.  Of course, the Cosmic Genome team were in attendance lending their support and catching up with lots of the speakers back stage for their take on the campaign and what we can all do to help.  If you want to get involved with the Science is Vital campaign, and you jolly well should, head to their page for more info.

It is important to remember that other leading nations such as the USA, China, Germany and France have all, despite austerity, appreciated the importance of investing in science and have acted accordingly.  It could be disastrous for the UK to not follow suit.

Early in November we put up two videos that featured excerpts from our backstage chats on YouTube.  Here is an extended clip of all the interviews.

Greg Foot

Hey, I’m Greg Foot, I’m a science presenter on TV, on YouTube and on stage and I’m an engagement fellow for the Wellcome Trust.  For me, UK science is made out of the people doing the science and the people making that happen - the people applying that science - and also the people who are going out and spreading the word about science, and I’m a professional full-time science communicator.  So for me, Science is Vital is really important because if the government decide to cut the science budget, then that’s going to cut essentially what I go and talk to people about, and I’ve found that science is a fantastic way to engage the public: to spark their curiosity, to invoke a sense of wonder, and I think if we cut that then we’re cutting our sense of curiosity.

Professor Uta Frith

I’m Uta Frith, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL; I’m originally German and I came to this country 50 years ago.  I feel an incredible debt of gratitude to this country and the world of science for having been amazingly hospitable to me and welcoming when I came here such a long time ago. I didn't actually intend to stay, but it was so obvious to me that this was the place to be for becoming a scientist.  I think we all need to be involved, there is just no exception: we are all producers and consumers of science, it is just the most culturally important thing to be involved in it as well as of course practically, so I just can’t see anybody nowadays not being really interested in science and finding it highly rewarding to be so.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili

I’m Jim Al-Khalili, I’m a professor of Physics at the University of Surrey.  I’m a board member of CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and I guess I’ve been asked, firstly on behalf of CaSE but also as a jobbing scientist, to be involved in this campaign.  Science is as vital as ever, and what’s important is that five years ago when the Science is Vital campaign really worked very hard to try and convince the government that in order for the economy to grow we need to invest in science…the problem this time round is that a lot of them in government actually get it and say ‘Oh, yes, we know that we have to invest more in science’.  So we need to make sure that they put their money where their mouth is. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s trying to generate the interest that it’s now as vital as ever that we invest in science in this country and if we don’t, I can see things going from bad to worse; we’re already seeing signs that it’s fraying at the edges, that the UK is falling further and further behind our competitors.  The public can do many things: of course scientists will say, you know, give us more money because we enjoy doing science.  What the public can do is convince government that science feeds into all our lives, whether it’s in health, whether it’s in education, whether it’s policy, whether it’s in engineering; for the betterment of society. Funding science isn't just about providing more research money for scientists to do clever things, it’s about improving the lives of everyone in this country.

Professor James Wilsdon

I’m James Wilsdon, I’m chair of the Campaign for Social Science and I’m a professor down at Sussex University.  So I’m here primarily wearing a social science hat to demonstrate solidarity from the social sciences with the big message that science is as vital as ever and particularly to plea for unity across the natural sciences, engineering, social science and humanities at a time when research funding for all of us is in the balance and we need to pull together and stand in making our case to the government.  I think the public can do a certain amount to engage with their MP, to put pressure on elected members of parliament in various ways to make the case in parliament; I think with the spending review which will happen in about a month from now, there is still likely to be a lot to play for in the months that follow that in terms of the way the system will be organised, so it’s not an immediate…all resting, you know, on the next three to four weeks, there’s the opportunity to continue to push these issues right through into the first part of next year.

Sue Duncombe

I’m Sue Duncombe, I’m a cancer campaigns ambassador for Cancer Research UK, it’s a volunteer role.  OK, in terms of Science is Vital, I’m absolutely passionate that the government needs to maintain investment in UK science and I have a particularly personal reason for that. My husband had prostate cancer and had the benefit of a trial drug, Abiraterone, that had an absolutely fantastic result for him in terms of improving the quality of life. That drug was funded by Cancer Research UK, industry and by government and we need government to continue to actually make investment in UK science, because with investment today we can save lives in the future.  In terms of what everybody can do, everybody can make a difference, and in terms of Science is Vital, you can send a postcard to George Osborne telling him why you believe that science is vital.

Dr Simon Singh

I’m Simon Singh, I did a PhD in particle physics a long, long time ago and now I write science books and other sorts of things and I’m here at Science is Vital and I gave a kind of a talk, well, I did a little demonstration on why science is vital but I was going to do something completely different. I was going to talk about the fact that during the Blitz, we’re in Holborn, and during the Blitz there were bombs dropping all around us, there were nine bombs dropping on Red Lion Street behind us, four bombs dropped onTheobald Street to that side, you know, when you see maps of London with the bombing that came during those nine to ten months of the Blitz it’s shocking, and of course science was vital to winning the Battle of Britain and bringing the Blitz to an end. Science was vital in winning the battle of the Atlantic, science was vital in winning the Second World War due to to things like breaking the Enigma code and Alan Turing, or Benedict Cumberbatch as he’s sometimes known! Those people, those mathematicians and scientists, showed that science was really vital. Back then, the general public probably didn't realise how vital science was but the politicians really did and, in fact, the role of science was kept largely secret so only the politicians, the most senior politicians, appreciated how vital science is. Now the situation’s kind of been reversed because I think the public appreciate that science is vital, whether it’s genetically modified foods, or energy policy, or climate change, or pioneering new technologies of the information age; the public get it, they understand that science is vital, but sadly the politicians don’t. So I guess that’s why we’re all here and that’s why we need scientists and fans of science to speak up and to say that science is vital so that politicians back it as well as the public.

Prof Mark Miodownik

I’m Mark Miodownik, I’m Professor of Materials at UCL.  For a long time I was a scientist and an engineer, I was just doing my thing, trying to get my way in the world and then I realised, hold it, we’ve all got so much common cause and yet we have no political voice, why? Why do we have no political voice? Because we never do stuff together, we never speak with one voice and actually all the academies, they speak, and they speak for us, but they speak behind the scenes, in general to government.  We need a voice that speaks out loud, in the public, and this is Science is Vital. Because the Science is Vital campaign is the public upswelling of everyone who is concerned about the decline in science and engineering funding, then everyone has a voice and I think getting involved and taking part, everybody’s equal, it’s about letting the government know that this is a political issue, this is about votes. If science and engineering funding  declines, they will get less votes; that’s what it’s about.

Prof Lucie Greene

My name’s Lucie Greene and I’m a space scientist working at University College London in the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.  The Science is Vital campaign is about getting people to come forward and demonstrate why they need science funding to be not only continued but raised, and show the benefit for both society and for the economy.  I was really pleased to be able to take part in the campaign because for me, I need the funding to continue for the research that I do; the space science projects I work on benefit from having long term funding.  My involvement in the campaign is to come along this evening and give a talk about some of the aspects that are close to my heart in space science, so the missions that I work on, the missions that my colleagues work on, and how exciting those missions are and why we really need them to continue.  If we had a loss of funding of the space science projects we work on, the impact would be severe. So I think that we are very good at what we do,  and we work on a shoestring already so there’s only much that you can cut the funding before you start to have catastrophic effects. And at the moment we’re very successful with working with the European Space Agency and, in fact, we have in recent years had really good support for the European Space Agency and we had the establishment of the UK Space Agency as well, so there was a real push for growth in space science in the UK. Now that’s not only related to the science that happens but also the economic benefit of space science in this country, so the space sector as a whole, and MPs have an agenda for growing the UK space sector turnover from ten billion a year to forty billion a year, but to have that happen we need investment in basic research and development, it won’t happen otherwise. Private companies won’t put in the research and development, that needs to be government funded.

Dr Adam Rutherford

Hi, I’m Adam Rutherford, a presenter of BBC Inside Science on Radio 4, and I’m a writer and that sort of stuff.  Science is Vital has been running for, I don't know, five or six years now; we got going in 2010 in order to campaign for the protection of the science budget last time round and now we’re back because were facing the same level of cuts; you can hear the applause of the rally going on in there right now. So it’s a lobby, i’s a rally, we’re trying to protect science in this country.  The most important thing that the general public can do is get involved. I spoke to a backbencher Tory MP five years ago and I mentioned the campaign to him and he said that in the past year, he’d received 80 letters from the Women’s Institute about a proposed bus route in his constituency, and I said, how many letters have you got on a scientific subject in your decades in parliament, and his answer was zero.  It is now easier than ever to write to your MP. they work for is the website to do it, or you can go via the Science is Vital website. But if you write - if they get ten letters on one subject - then they will consider it seriously, it’s so easy to do.

Dr Jennifer Rohn

My name is Jennifer Rohn. I’m a scientist at University College London and I’m the founder and chair of Science is Vital.  Science is Vital is a grassroots group of scientists and their supporters who came together in 2010 to protest cuts that were threatened to science at that time. We had a big rally in the streets, two thousand scientists in white coats, placards, the works, and after the campaign, which we energised with a lot of other efforts, the government agreed to ring fence the science budget, not invest in it but just to protect it. So for the last five years we’ve been under this ring fence. Well, because of inflation it was a real terms cut in the end, because if we had flat cash, prices go up but the investment stays the same, so the UK has been suffering a bit because we don't have any investment in five years and, indeed, we’ve had a bit of a decline.

We’ve got to do something now because the government is threatening now to cut up to 40% on top of this decline that we’ve already had for the last five years, so imagine, we’ve had this flat cash settlement, five more years with up to 40% cuts would be absolutely devastating for UK science. I’m not exaggerating, if these cuts happen we will lose a generation of infrastructure, people will leave the UK in droves, it will be such a bad thing, so what we have to do is to tell the government that this is just not on. We have to rise up and tell George Osborne and the treasury that he has to protect science funding. He says all the time that science is his personal priority,  he said that we need a strong research base to be a strong country, but he’s got to put his money where his mouth is and we are calling on George Osborne to increase the science budget, not to keep it at at the flat cash or, God forbid, cut it any further.  So what you can do is you can write a postcard to George Osborne, if you go to our website there’s a really handy widget, all you have to do is upload a photo or use one of our photos, write a brief message to George Osborne, click the button and we will do everything for you, we’ll print it out, we’ll deliver it to George Osborne on your behalf. We already have a thousand postcards from all over the UK. S o all you have to do is send a postcard to George, do it today, do it right now!

Dr Andrew Steele

I’m Andrew Steele and my day job is that I’m a computational biologist but by night I’m the vice chair of Science is Vital, which is a grassroots organisation campaigning  for science and science funding, and I also created something called Scienceogram which tries to make sense of how much we spend on science.  Science funding in the UK in the last five years has been on a slowly declining path, it’s been a bit up and down, the government keep telling us that science is their personal priority and injecting a little bit more into the budget but the basic trend is that the amount of cash that’s been invested in what’s been called the ‘science budget’ has been flat, it’s been frozen, and so inflation has been slowly eroding the spending power of the science budget and if we don't do anything about it, that’s what’s going to happen for the next five years too, so it could be a lost decade for British science.

So the Scienceogram, as I said, tries to make sense of science funding and one way that we do that is to look at the amounts that we spend and compare them to certain items of every day expenditure. So, for example, it might shock you to know that cancer kills about a third of us and yet we spend just £2.80 per person per year on public funded cancer research. And that just astounds me because if there’s a disease with a 30% chance of killing me, I want to spend more than £3 a year trying to work out why and maybe how to stop it. But then when you try and compare that to items of personal spending, so when you look at the average spending in the UK on various different items, this number becomes even more astounding, it’s something that just doesn't make sense to me.  We spend more than £160 per person per year in the UK on weddings. In fact, if you get the cost of the average wedding and divide it by the length of the average marriage, you get about £700 a year. Now compare that to the £2.80 per year that we spend on researching cancer, I just can’t get my head round that.

The most important thing if you want to support science and science funding is to make some noise about it; I think that scientists and supporters of science are classically quite quiet people, they're quite considered, they like to amass all the evidence before making a noise. The fact is that when you ask MPs they never hear anybody coming to them and telling them about science funding, about science policy. And the most important thing is just to make our voices heard, is to join together and when you have the opportunity with a campaign like the one that Science is Vital is running right now just get online, send a postcard to George Osborne or contact your MP, just try to get politicians and the media to understand that this is a big deal, people care about this stuff. You don't have to be a scientist, if you're a patient who’s benefitted from medical research, or could benefit from medical research in the future, if you care about your energy prices, if you care about energy security, if you care about climate change, these are all great reasons to get in touch with someone and tell them how vital science is to you.