Today Vince Cable continues his attack on science, and academic research more generally, as he announces we must abandon research which is “neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding”. Cable will tell us that he favours “ration[ing] research funding by excellence” and that we must “screen out mediocrity”. Which, as William Cullerne Brown points out, is what, as far as possible, happens now:

we already have mechanisms throughout our research system in this country to try and ensure this doesn’t happen. QR funding already is tightly focused on departments that have proved themselves to be those things in the RAE. Every grant that is awarded by a research council gets its funding because it meets those criteria better than the competing proposals. Heads of department and vice chancellors are constantly assessing the performance of researchers to see whether they are producing work that meets these sorts of criteria.

What Vince’s speech is really about is softening up universities for yet more cuts. Talk of cuts of 35% may well prove to be an overstatement but it’s worth bearing in mind that the last crisis in funding in my field, physics, just a few years ago, resulted from an £80m shortfall due to mismanagement. If government research funding is hit equally with all other departments we should expect a cut of around 25%, nearly £1bn. Even if we are not hit that badly the effects could be devastating. Departments will almost certainly have to close across many universities and whole fields of research may have to be virtually given up in this country.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, whilst government funding to universities is being cut we also face the prospect of cuts in foreign student numbers. Immigration minister Damian Green intends to clamp down on the scandal of international students coming to this country, paying thousands a year in fees and visas an then having the audacity to stay here and use those skills in our country. UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said:

The UK remains one of the most popular destinations for foreign students because of our proud international reputation for excellence. We need to be able to offer places to the world’s best and brightest students. The last thing we want to do is send a message that those students are not welcome here.

Populist policies on immigration might play well domestically, but on the global stage we risk looking foolish. Damian Green is making his speech today after returning from a trip to India where he encouraged students to come to the UK.

So we’re going to have no money to do any research, but don’t worry, there’ll be no students either.

This weekend I’ll be at the English and Welsh Green Party conference in Birmingham where, amongst many other hopefully interesting sessions, I’ll be attending the science group fringe “Science Funding in an Age of Austerity”. It seems clear the Liberals and Tories have no intention of protecting and fostering science and non-commercial research, so if any of you are at conference on Monday I hope you can join us to debate what we can do to argue for the importance of proper funding.

Science Funding in an Age of Austerity

About Alasdair Thompson

Alasdair co-founded Bright Green Scotland in 2009.