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False alarms

British scientists must adopt a positive tone if they hope to protect their gains in funding.

On 11 January, a coalition of 20 leading British research universities published an editorial in The Guardian newspaper warning of impending calamity. If the spending cuts being proposed by the government are implemented, the authors asserted, the nation's entire higher-education system, eight centuries in the making, could be undone in just six months.

Such alarmist statements have worked before. In an ordinary budget year, cries of falling skies and loss of leadership can pressure politicians to shift resources towards research.

But the coming budget for Britain looks anything but ordinary (see page 410). To maintain the country's financial standing in the face of the ongoing global recession, the government will soon have to start to lower its deficit. And with taxes already high, across-the-board cuts in spending seem inevitable. If this summer's election leads to a change of government, as many expect it will, then this autumn's budgeting process will be even more chaotic.

Alarmist rhetoric is much less likely to work in this kind of budgetary climate. Politicians may wish to support science, but asking them to put research ahead of front-line government services such as policing and public health is not just unrealistic, it risks making scientists look petulant.

There is an alternative. Rather than trying to convince politicians that the problem is pressing, researchers should prove to them that science can be a solution. After the banking and financial-services industries collapsed in 2008 and 2009, research and higher education became one of Britain's strongest industries. Scientists should make the case that these institutions can be mobilized to help the nation out of recession, by providing world-class education for its citizens and innovations that will set Britain apart from its competitors. They should also move the debate beyond the budget cuts, and into a broad consideration of how best to spend the limited funding that will be available.

This more anodyne, pro-science message will be effective only if politicians hear it again and again from all corners of the scientific establishment. At the moment, however, that seems far from happening. Most groups now mobilizing in support of science are fighting for their particular corner of the research enterprise. High-energy physicists, for example, are energetically battling a current round of spending cuts. Medical charities are pushing to preserve funds that support their university research.

Fortunately, the tools for a more coherent effort are already in place. The Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK (CaSE), created after former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed draconian cuts in the 1980s, is a broad coalition of charities, universities and industry that promotes science. In the run-up to the UK election, CaSE is preparing a series of letters encouraging politicians to form a positive science agenda along the lines described above. Individual researchers should add their voices to the chorus by inviting local politicians to their campuses, and by signing on to CaSE's agenda.

In addition, the Royal Society, Britain's leading academic society, is preparing to release a report on the future of UK science. That document, which is being authored by two Nobel laureates and several researchers from industry and government, is expected to make a strong, positive case for long-term investment in science.

The positive tone will not be enough to shield British science entirely from the cuts that lie ahead: research is only one national need among many, and cannot claim a special entitlement. But done right, it can help to ameliorate the losses and ensure that science grows quickly whenever the nation begins its recovery.

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False alarms. Nature 463, 402 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463402a

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