Published online 5 October 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.512

News: Q&A

How vital is science?

British scientists begin to mobilize in the fight against research funding cuts.

Jennifer RohnJennifer Rohn is behind a campaign to save UK science from funding cuts.Richard P Grant

Science is on the chopping block in the United Kingdom. The government's planned public spending cuts could slash research funding by as much as 15%, and business secretary Vince Cable recently suggested that about 45% of funded research may not be in the future.

Scientists have begun to speak out — expressing their anger at what astronomer Patrick Moore describes as "shooting ourselves in the foot". Moore was speaking in support of Science is Vital, a campaign group that hopes to persuade the government that science cuts would harm the economy and that is organizing a protest march in London on 9 October. Nature spoke to Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London who started the campaign.

What motivated you to start the Science is Vital campaign?

It was a spur of the moment thing. Science communicators are always goading scientists to go out and do something, which planted something in my mind. The final straw was Vince Cable's speech. It made me really angry and I thought we should do something — march in the streets — and it took off.

Will the campaign continue after the cuts have been announced?

In coordination with the Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK, we want to create a legacy organization, because this is probably only the beginning. If we lose this battle we'll want to keep fighting, and even if we win there will always be threats to science funding.

The petition has only about 14,000 signatures. Though that number is climbing fast, it is still small in comparison to the number of scientists working in the United Kingdom. Does this reflect apathy on the part of the scientific community?

“I can imagine a whole generation of scientists being lost.”

No, I think it reflects the fact that we've just started. The petition has been live for less than two weeks, and we're getting almost 1,000 signatures a day. I think if we had another couple of months we would get loads. We're running out of time, that is the problem.

I don't think there is apathy among the general public either. The petition includes loads of non-scientists — housewives, cab drivers and artists — it's really exciting.

Do you think there will be a stronger reaction once the cuts have been announced?

I don't know — maybe people will be defeatist. We had to choose either to do something before the spending review, so we could try to make a difference, or to wait until afterwards and be more organized. Other marches are happening later because it takes time to arrange something like this properly, as we have found out. We're the only ones I know of that decided to act beforehand, but I've heard that there are lots of things on the cards with the unions — there is going to be a lot of civil unrest about this.

Considering that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills may have already decided what will be cut, what do you hope to achieve with this campaign?

The most important part of our campaign is the letter writing and the lobbying. If hundreds of Members of Parliament get hundreds of letters from their constituents, they're supposed to listen, to be our ambassadors. There must be some wriggle room there before the final announcement is made.

If science were to be spared cuts, where should they fall instead?

I think it is the government's problem, how to balance the budget. They have to decide that science is vital and then how that happens is up to those experts.

If the science budget was cut by 15%, what is your vision of the future?

I worry about the younger generation. Those scientists who are already well established will probably weather it. If we're going to lose 25,000 positions it is going to be the young people who go. I can imagine a whole generation of scientists being lost. 

Disclaimer: Nature is a supporter of Science is Vital.

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