Nature 459, 889-890 (18 June 2009) | doi:10.1038/459889b; Published online 17 June 2009

Coherent advocacy please


Reactions to UK government changes are an example of how researchers should not behave in a downturn.

As high-energy physicists and astronomers learned long ago, when making the case for investments in science it is helpful or even essential to present a coherent front to outsiders, not least governments. The idea that the entirety of scientific research could present such a united front in public will strike most of Nature's readers as fanciful. Yet some coherence will be needed in the months and years ahead if science is to maintain the public support it needs, at a time when severe economic and other challenges assail scientifically active countries.

Most politicians appreciate the bounties of science; for example, drugs now entering clinical trials that are direct outcomes of basic biomedical research, and experimental revelations about the Universe and human origins. But they do not necessarily understand the process of science — the unpredictabilities of fundamental research, the uncertainties in applying that research to real problems, and the sheer scale of effort required to make headway.

In straitened times, the politicians within any government or legislature who do understand the importance of science need all the help they can get from the research community as they seek to maintain its financial support. How scientists should not react in such an environment has been well illustrated over the past two weeks in the United Kingdom. The Labour government, weakened by resignations and recent election losses, instituted a reshuffle of ministers and ministries that moved funding for science and universities away from a dedicated department created two years ago and into the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Immediately there came laments from researchers that science would now be the servant of industry and that fundamental research might lose out.

Such reactions are misguided, both as a matter of fact and in principle. Factually, they ignore the track record of the current government, whatever its prevailing structure, in its consistent support for a portfolio of research ranging from the fundamental to the directly applicable. They also do insufficient justice to the two ministers now at the helm of the university and science bases, both of whom are strong advocates for science. The science minister Paul Drayson (who has been given more clout across government than his predecessors in the role) is an articulate businessman who has never lost sight of the fundamental science on which his pharmaceutical company PowderJect was based. And his ministerial boss, Peter Mandelson, is a highly effective politician who is pivotal within the government, and who previously demonstrated an understanding of the needs of science when, in 1998, he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and in charge of the government department that was then relevant to science funding.

The reactions to the reshuffle were also misguided in principle. Whether dealing with the Labour government or the Conservative opposition, UK scientists as a whole need to avoid giving the impression that they are impervious to the requirements of the nation and that any outsider should simply give them the money and leave them to get on with it. This will be especially true over the next 12 months, as the country heads towards a general election and as both main political parties plan future expenditures.

None of this is intended to let politicians off the hook. The government needs to articulate more powerfully its vision for the universities, and the Conservative party needs to explain its plan for how science and the universities will be kept robust in the difficult times ahead.

But the science community in any country where national budgets are under extraordinary pressure should be sending coherent positive messages to all political parties. These communities should find fresh language with which to extol the value of research in meeting national challenges. They need to highlight its relevance to a nation's particular economic opportunities, to mitigating and anticipating such effects as climate change and emerging diseases and, yes, to sustaining its vigour and enriching the nation's culture, through fundamental new insights. If, by contrast, researchers and their supporters convey to the public a sense of entitlement, they risk undermining science as a whole.

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