I’m speaking tomorrow at the protest against science cuts, it’s 2pm outside the Treasury, wear something that looks like your field, maybe a white coat, or a telescope, or a field if you’re a botanist.
Details of the protest:
Sign the petition:
Write to your MP:
(but it’s easier using www.theyworkforyou.com )
Briefly, although I might knock this into something chunkier for somewhere else:
Thanks to Vince Cable’s bizarre and incorrect claims about the quality of UK science (45% not excellent, apparently), and various coalition mutterings, it looks like we are heading for significant cuts in science and research funding.
Obviously people are talking about a brain drain.
I don’t normally write about stuff like this, or if I do it’s on my other blog, but people I know are talking about it a lot, so I thought I’d jot down our guess of how this will happen, and how effects in one area can have an impact on others. I should be clear, I have no complaints about my own life, I’m very happy with my lot, I’m just telling you what I see and hear from my friends.
The people who will move first are the people in their twenties and thirties – the real future of your country – for several reasons. Firstly, you’re mobile when you’re younger: no kids, younger kids, eager to see the world, reckless, whatever. Secondly, Labour created a house price bubble that is now being held high – have a long conversation about vested interests if you want to bore yourself – but if you go to the US you can buy a house, and if you go to Europe, you can rent in a regulated rental market. (The average age that people buy a first home is now 37, which is, for perspective, over the age at which many NHS PCTs will give fertility treatment: this is not a hugely attractive country for a hard-working young professional). Lastly, academics elsewhere are paid more.
Remember, of course, we’re not just thinking about people born and bred in the UK, who might be culturally committed, with deep family roots: we’re also talking about people who look in from the outside and think, “no thanks”.
Remember also the most important feature of a brain drain: you lose your best people first.
In addition to all this, there is a second round to the traditional brain drain model: people in more senior roles in universities find it difficult to attract high calibre international junior talent, so they move too. This group is older, and a bit less mobile, but they can still move. In fact, one worry here is that the world’s population is much more mobile than before, with people moving around much more in general, cheaper flights (whatever you think about the environmental cost) and better communications technology, so it’ll probably take less motivation to move than before.
Lastly, it’s worth thinking about how reversible this will be. Have you ever played that game where you wonder if you’d be any use, dumped naked in 10,000 BC? You’d have a long way to go before you could get anywhere back to modern civilisation, starting from the very basics. You’d need to extract ores, make metal, fashion tools, get manufacturing, reinvent all kinds of stuff you took for granted, and have huge numbers of people to collaborate with who all knew how this stuff should work. I guarantee you you couldn’t make one thousandth of the components in whatever building you’re sat in right now. This vast catch up program would take a very long time.
If you lose the advantage you have right now – a large diffuse network of people who have kit, and know how it works – and have to rebuild it in 20 years time, you will be in competition with up and coming countries who have fought tooth and nail to try and get anywhere near where we are today. They may have larger, more motivated populations, perhaps better educated, perhaps better supported by other areas of their society, perhaps just better.
There’s not a lot more that we’re good at. We don’t manufacture stuff, we don’t mine coltan, we don’t have cheap labour, and while we do have a lot of bankers, for all that networks of relationships are important in that world, as far as I know, it’s also a pretty mobile and motivated sector that will up sticks and move somewhere cheaper as soon as the moment takes them. Basically, like it or not, being good at clever stuff is the only future we have now, and that means science.
With academics, you’re looking at something that politicians have some difficulty understanding: they’re highly intelligent, highly educated, professional and motivated people, who could earn large sums of money in a commercial setting, but instead choose to work in academia, for peanuts in comparison. It would be very easy to take that sort of thing for granted. It would also be pretty stupid.