Scientists unhappy with policy are right to take to the streets.
The mock funeral — an idea so good that scientists had it twice. Last month, about 2,000 researchers marched on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, carrying a coffin that signified, they said, the “death of evidence”. The scientists were protesting against a series of cuts by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's conservative government that they believed threatened basic research and undermined expert advice in areas such as environmental policy. And in May, physical scientists drove a horse-drawn Victorian hearse to the British Prime Minister's residence in Downing Street, London, this time to mark the demise of UK science.
The Downing Street stunt was to protest against moves made by the main public funder of UK physical-sciences research, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), to cut the number of proposals it receives and to prioritize research that addresses national priorities or comes with economic spin-offs (see page 20).
Echoing their Canadian counterparts, the scientists argued that the changes would endanger blue-skies research in chemistry, physics and mathematics. But unlike Canada's protests, the UK campaign has yet to win support from the wider scientific community.
In part, that is because the campaign targets a single, specific funder and so is not seen as relevant to UK science as a whole. Some researchers have dismissed the coffin parade as an overreaction to a spat between a few disenfranchised scientists and the EPSRC. Others worry that a public protest that exposes disunity in the ranks of science at a time of economic chaos could result in cuts to the science budget.
Perhaps, but if it is an isolated spat, then why did people with little personal stake in the EPSRC's policies join in the protests? And the calls by dissenters to close ranks — to keep calm and to carry on — ignore the fact that science funding is a political question. To make a point in a political arena, scientists must stand up and be counted.
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Marching orders. Nature 488, 5 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/488005b