Science Policy in the Media

Mark Henderson is Science Editor of The Times, and author of 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know. He is collecting ideas for his next book, The Geek Manifesto, to be published Spring 2012. This article originally appeared in CaSE's 25th anniversary newsletter.

For much of the past 18 months, the Campaign for Science and Engineering was regularly asked the same question. It might have been only a few years since the lobby group changed its name from Save British Science, which had started to sound a little odd as Research Council budgets were being doubled. But was it time to change it back?

It is easy to see why such a move might have been worth considering, for if the future of British science had looked reasonably secure when CaSE rebranded itself, at least four significant new threats had recently presented themselves. First, there was the crisis over scientific advice to government, provoked by Alan Johnson’s decision to sack Professor David Nutt as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, without reference to either the Science Minister or the Chief Scientific Adviser. Then there was the spate of libel actions brought against scientists and science writers, most prominently the cases against Peter Wilmshurst and Simon Singh.

The deficit brought on by the financial collapse meant that significant public spending cuts were expected after the general election, regardless of its outcome, and none of the three parties was prepared to guarantee the science budget. On top of that, the favourites to win were the Conservatives, who were pledged to introduce an immigration cap that could prove profoundly damaging to the interests of research.

Perhaps British science still needed saving after all. None of these threats has been eliminated entirely. But to different degrees, all now look a little less severe than they once did, in part because of CaSE’s activities.

Together with allied groups such as Sense About Science, CaSE played an important role in leading the scientific community’s response to the Nutt affair and the libel reform campaign, with tangible results in each instance. A set of principles guaranteeing the independence of scientific advisers has now been incorporated into the ministerial code, and though somewhat weaker than might have been hoped for, these should help to prevent future ministers from acting like Mr Johnson. All three main parties committed themselves to reforming the libel laws in their manifestoes, and a bill is expected next year.

On funding and the immigration cap, CaSE have led the way to great effect. In the months ahead of the Spending Review, it was instrumental in marshalling the arguments that transformed a proposed 25% cash cut for science into a flat cash settlement.

Senior government figures have told me that a letter to The Times signed by several business leaders, organised by CaSE, was extremely helpful to David Willetts and Vince Cable as they argued for science funding with the Treasury. This was followed by the Science is Vital campaign, which made it clear to ministers that a substantial constituency would be watching the science settlement closely the next time they cast their votes. CaSE and Science is Vital kept the issue high on the media agenda, particularly in The Times and The Guardian, which both ran supportive leaders. The outcome of the Spending Review was not ideal – flat cash still means a real terms cut of about 10% – but it was considerably better than might have been expected.

On immigration, CaSE’s efforts again seem to have had a significant influence. Particularly important was the letter to The Times from eight Nobel prize-winners, including the two new Russian-born laureates, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, published on October 7. It thrust the damaging effects of the cap on science onto the front pages, forcing ministers to think hard about how they might be mitigated.

British science may not quite need saving any more, but what all these issues highlight is the continued need for the community of those who care about it to remain politically vigilant and active. They also show that well-directed lobbying of the sort CaSE has led can have considerable effects.

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