Political threats to science funding

Two developments, one in the U.K. and one in the U.S., presage serious difficulties for science funding and indeed the future of scientific research worldwide.

In the U.K., Business Secretary Vince Cable announced this week that he wants to “ration” British science. The proposal is to eliminate the 46% of U.K. research that is not defined as “world class.” Numerous political analysts, not to mention research scientists, are dumbfounded at this development. The announcement appears to suggest that Cable, and others in his ministry, are unaware of the extent to which U.K. research projects are already sifted by a very competitive process. The Medical Research Council, for example, received 1475 grant applications, but funded only 279 (only 19%).

Richard Horton, Editor of Lancet, noted that most of the 46% that Cable considers less worthy was rated by an independent review body as “internationally” or “nationally” recognised for its “originality, significance, and rigour.” This review body found only 2% of U.K. research that “falls below the standard of nationally recognised work.” Horton further observed that the two biggest causes of death in the U.K. are heart disease and cancer. The proposed cuts would lead to a 40% cut in research for heart disease and a 28% cut in cancer research. See [Horton2010], from which part of this post is excerpted.

It is perplexing that Cable himself has acknowledged OECD evidence showing that investment in innovative research was crucial for future economic success.  He himself cited the organisation’s conclusion that cutting back investment in innovation “will damage the foundations of long-term growth.”

There are also concerns that Cable plans cuts to the U.K. university research system. This is in spite of the latest independent rankings of the world’s universities, which show the U.K. is second only to the U.S. in the overall quality of its education and research. The U.K. had 30 of the 200 best universities in the world, a disproportionate number relative to its modest population.

What is also disconcerting is that Cable is a highly respected Liberal  minister in the British coalition  cabinet, one with a serious economic track record. One can hope there is some sober second thought.  But, given current UK debt levels, there will be large cuts to research.

Research funding success rates are similar in Australia, which is currently undertaking a comprehensive review of Excellence in Research in Australia (ERA) across all disciplines. It is based largely on prior UK rankings of university research. Each unit will be ranked “well above/above/at/below/well below” a so called “world standard”  in the discipline. While no direct financial decisions will ensue, it is clear that there stand to be both intended and unintended consequences. It is easy to imagine a future Australian Minister echoing  Vince Cable’s comments and basing his or her decisions on a very crude reading of a complex and uncertain ranking process.

Even more ominous developments are seen in the U.S. Popular conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh declared that government, academia, science and media form the “four corners of deceit.” He explains, “those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.”

As an editorial in Nature notes, “It is tempting to laugh off this and other rhetoric broadcast by Rush Limbaugh, a conservative US radio host, but Limbaugh and similar voices are no laughing matter.” It continues, “There is a growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts — including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research.” See [Nature2010], from which parts of this post are excerpted.

Limbaugh, for instance, who has further told his listeners that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”, and has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world.” Barack Obama, in his inauguration speech, promised “to restore science to its rightful place,” but this seems only to have made science even more of a target of the political right.

In a related development, conservatives have in several cases linked creationism to global warming controversy and other science-related controversies. For example, a bill introduced into the Kentucky legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning” [Kaufman2010].

Clearly scientists on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific need to fight such counter productive budget cuts and compromises of the public school curricula. But how long can scientists prevail, armed only with high-level politicking and court orders? If strategic changes are not made, there is a real risk that scientists may prevail in a few battles here and there, but lose the long-term war. That long-term war will only be won by improving scientific and mathematical education, and that means a steady stream of reliable funding for basic instruction from Kindergarten through high school and through the college level. Let’s hope this war will not be lost.

[Added 16 Oct 2010] In a recent development, universities in the U.K. now are facing budget cuts of up to 80%. To make up the shortfall, universities will have to raise tuition to an average of over $11,000, more than double the current level. For additional details see [Lyall2010].


  1. [Horton2010] Richard Horton, “Why it’s irrational to ration science funding,” Guardian, 10 Sep 2010, available at Online article.
  2. [Kaufman2010] Leslie Kaufman, “Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets,” New York Times, 3 Mar 2010, available at Online article.
  3. [Lyall2010] Sarah Lyall, “Universities in Britain Brace for Cuts in Subsidies,” New York Times, 15 Oct 2010, available at Online article.
  4. [Nature2010] Nature editorial, “Science scorned,” Nature, 9 Sep 2010, available at Online article.

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