Nerds, rise up! Science cuts protest tomorrow

October 8th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, politics | 15 Comments »

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:

scienceisvital.org.uk/

Sign the petition:

scienceisvital.org.uk/sign-the-petition/

Write to your MP:

scienceisvital.org.uk/write-to-your-mp/

(but it’s easier using www.theyworkforyou.com )

Here’s what I wrote on my other blog about the next Brain Drain last month:

The coming brain drain, and why it could be worse than before

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.


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15 Responses



  1. AdamJacobs said,

    October 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    “wear something that looks like your field”

    As I’m a statistician, should I wear my anorak?

  2. Seye said,

    October 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I’m a physics student. Should I wear a huge pile of expensive books and carry a pint of cheap (flat & warm) beer?

  3. rationalist said,

    October 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    We had such high hopes of Vince when he joined the Government. What a disappointment he is.

  4. richardelguru said,

    October 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    I’m a computer programmer now resident in the States and I can confirm from personal experience all that you say about the potentials of draining ones brain. Though I really miss the UK and wish I could return, I’m sooooo much better off over here. Plus everyone thinks my (RP) accent is cool!
    Ah! When I retire…

  5. palashdave said,

    October 8, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Good work, Ben. I think you might want to edit the first “Details of the protest”, link. Doesn’t work from where I’m looking. Replace with scienceisvital.org.uk/attend-the-demo/

  6. Dr Aust said,

    October 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Hear hear, Ben.

    Quite a few people have been posting (on blogs) letters they have sent to their MPs, with University- or region-specific examples but with many of the same arguments. See e.g. here.

  7. lifesciencestudent said,

    October 8, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I’m a third year student who spent the summer working in a lab in the US. The opportunities for scientists over there really opened my eyes… I will be part of the brain drain, and I know for a fact that I’m being joined by some of the most talented students in my year.

  8. bravante said,

    October 8, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    I am a scientist working in the US. And yes, things here are better than in many places. However, thighs are getting tough too. Getting funded by NIH, USDA, NSF, etc. is getting more and more difficult. Once the agencies start funding the top 5%, you need a perfect proposal and lots of luck. State Universities are abolishing tenure and reducing the faculty positions. On the other hand, thousands of postdoc and PhD are looking for employment. The future is rather grim.

  9. Sili said,

    October 8, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Nerds of the world, unite!

    You have nothing to lose but your pocket protectors.

  10. Bloodvassal said,

    October 8, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    I’m also a UK national working in the US for the last 7 years. I’m a pharmacologist and over the early part of this decade watched university pharmacology departments close or become subsumed by ‘General Science’ departments leaving very little employment opportunities for me outside of industry. I look back across the Atlantic and cannot see myself returning there for work any time soon given the state of affairs described by Ben and others.

    @bravante is correct, obtaining funding here is becoming more difficult and I am in California one of the states worst hit by the economic downturn. However for those of us lucky enough to maintain our jobs the research infrastructure is apparently being maintained. I still think, as hard hit as California has been, that I would be hard pressed to find a faculty position with even close to the same level of pay and doubtfully the same level of research resources if I came back to the UK. As much as I would very much like to.

    @bravante: On another note, life in the lab would be quite different and much more interesting if tough thighs were a prime problem as suggested.

  11. Sqk said,

    October 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

    I’m an archaeo-engineer / experimental archaeologist, specialising in leaping about in person and writing explanatory tracts to explain that science isn’t scary to arts graduates… I’m sorry, no matter how much I try to explain it I think there’s going to be objections if I bring my full-scale replicas into the ‘smokeless zone’ of London…

    Campaign on my behalf and good luck! You have nothing to lose but your dignity…

    Re: 10,000BC game – yes, a lot, because just like everybody else, I value my healthcare: the advances, the availability and the application. And given the field that I work in, which is muddy and damp, it’s not just ‘10,000BC’, it’s less than 100 years…

  12. ellieban said,

    October 9, 2010 at 3:56 am

    I drained my brain about 18 months ago. I now work in Tokyo where they are really working hard to attract foreign scientists. I get paid more than I would at home, I have a 5 year contract and a well equipped lab. With that on offer and the jobs already drying up at home, I would have been foolish to stay.

    The brain drain isn’t something to worry about for the future: it’s already happening.

  13. Sqk said,

    October 9, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    There is a subtly that can be overlooked and which is briefly touched on above. If you look beyond those locked to Britain by family or other responsibility, it is possible to be doing absolutely new and vital research, be the best in your field, think so far ‘outside the box’ that no one else is coming up with the approaches that you use, but to also be dependent on the NHS for your quality of life and the ability to continue the research. In such a circumstance you can’t leave.

    Those around will leave, taking the money, facilities, other people with them. New resources will go straight to those that have gone. What will be left are second-rate or non-existent facilities and the good researchers left behind will either not be able to keep up or will simply leave the field altogether (through choice or necessity).

    I’m sure that there will always be other researchers, but no two think exactly alike and a loss of any of the best will be a loss to the subject as a whole.

  14. Jut said,

    October 9, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    I’m a Biology teacher. I left the UK three years ago for Qatar, and ended up in Romania. The pay I’ve been able to save in these countries is more than I could ever hope for in the UK; a country where I would take abuse from students all day, have less disposable income then when I was a student at college, and stand zero prospects of ever being able to afford my own home.

  15. chi turbo said,

    October 11, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Im not going to say what everyone else has already said, but I do want to comment on your knowledge of the topic. You’re truly well-informed.

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