Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Dear Chancellor: How you can be genuinely serious about research and the UK

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On the Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday morning, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was very enthusiastic in his support of science. “Letting intellectual enquiry take us where it does, is very important and government need to support that,” is one of a variety of things he said, and he took the opportunity to announce extra funding for graphene research.

All of this is very welcome, but it’s merely a drop in the ocean of what is required to make the UK attractive to the ‘brightest and best’.

Two things, above all, have to be sorted out.

Funding

The UK, as discussed previously on this blog, funds research at a lower level than its economic competitors. Just to go over the figures again:

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The overall fraction of GDP spent by the UK on R&D, at 1.77%, is lower than the government’s own target of 2.5%, and still lower than the 3% of the EU Lisbon Strategy. Meanwhile, the fraction of that funded directly by government is pitiful:

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When you’re trying to attract the best and brightest, money talks. Why should a world leading researcher from, say, the US or Germany want to come to the UK when we spend less than 2/3 of the GDP on research that the country they’re coming from spends? It doesn’t give one much confidence that one’s research is going to be supported in the long term, does it?

I can point to explicit examples among my immediate colleagues where funding has led to departures from the UK. One close colleague, an X-ray astronomer, saw the writing on the wall before the current crisis, and left to become the director of a Max Planck Institute – the kind of post that attracts the best and brightest scientists from across the world. In the UK, he would have the contracting astronomy budget to look forward to, a budget only adequate to support ESA missions, and, for X-ray astronomy, not even that, since UK support for ESA’s current X-ray satellite, XMM-Newton, was cut a few years ago. Within ESA, there is no prospect for a new X-ray mission before the mid 2020s at the earliest. In Germany, however, there is sufficient money to support not only ESA missions, but also so-called bi-lateral missions with other countries. In the case of X-ray astronomy, the next mission in Germany is eROSITA, a joint German-Russian project to be launched next year.

The UK used to have enough money for bi-lateral space missions, which is how we got a role in the US-German-UK project ROSAT, which was a great success in the 1990s. There are no prospects for the UK to be involved in any similar project at any time in the foreseeable future, thanks to restrictions in funding.

So, Chancellor, if you want the UK to attract the best and brightest, you have to provide the funds to allow the best and brightest to do what they want to do, or they will go and do it elsewhere. This is not something that can be done with specific focussed initiatives, since those ‘best and brightest’ will be sitting atop a pyramid of others working with them. A small isolated elite, such as the two graphene pioneers in Manchester, are not enough. At some level, the graphene funding announced yesterday demonstrates this realisation, since money went not only to Manchester, where the original work was done, but also to Cambridge and Imperial for work on applications. That approach has to apply across the whole of science and engineering, and that requires more money, not more cuts.

And that funding has to be flexible and responsive if, as Osborne says, he wishes to let “intellectual enquiry take us where it does”. The 3 year lockouts on STFC grants are a block to innovation, as are similar, though less severe, practices at EPSRC, which led to protests about the ‘death of British science’ earlier this year.

Put your money where your mouth is George, and try to actually compete with our scientific competitors.

Immigration

There is no guarantee that the ‘best and brightest’ are going to be British, of course. Funding might attract those from other countries, but if they can’t get visas to the UK, then they won’t come. The continuing immigration hysteria, whipped up by the likes of the Mail and Express, pandering to the crypto-fascists of UKIP, and the actual fascists of the BNP, has forced both this and the previous government to set the barriers to entering the UK ever higher. This doesn’t help attract anybody, and especially the ‘brightest and best’ who have lots of other choices open to them. It may well be that there are fewer restrictions for people at the top of their careers, but if they were put off the UK by earlier poor experiences at the hands of the UKBA or Home Office, then it’s too late to repair that damage with a few comforting phrases from the Chancellor.

But the problem goes deeper than that. A lab, pretty much, is only as good as its weakest link. You can have a Nobel winner leading it, but if those on the ground are poor at their jobs then the output will be poor. You thus need to attract the brightest and best at all levels – from graduate students upwards.

The availability of funding for non-UK graduate students is poor, at best, but is an issue better covered in a separate post, since there are in fact some helpful visa arrangements for them. The difficulties in hiring non-UK/EU postdocs, though, goes to the heart of the ‘best and brightest’ issue.

When you advertise a postdoc position you have to specify what skills, attributes and qualifications are required and which are beneficial but not required – this is what our HR department tell us. If you get at least one UK/EU candidate who ticks all of the required boxes, then, even if they are a demonstrably worse candidate than someone from outside the UK/EU, you have to hire them. To do otherwise risks the university’s ability to sponsor visas. This may sound good to those who want to make sure that British jobs are for British (or EU) people, but it makes a nonsense of wanting to build a research base of the best and brightest. Until this situation is fixed there is no way that the UK can be considered a welcoming place for incoming researchers.

So George, those are the problems. What are you going to do about them?

Numbers from Eurostat via the Guardian; figures for 2010 except where indicated.

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Author: davecl

Astronomy, science, science fiction

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