Tightening scientific belts
Mar 16, 2013
Bishop Hill in Bureaucrats, Climate: Sceptics

The editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, published an editorial yesterday called "Am I Wrong?". It's a fairly bog-standard call for the taxpaying public to cough up more money for the public sector, and it will be no surprise to readers that one of Alberts' hoped-for recipients is the scientific community (the other is "infrastructure projects").

In response there is a comment from Mike Kelly, of Oxburgh panel fame:

´╗┐Some points that you have not considered, which blunt the strength of your argument: The scientific enterprise is not immune from the peril of obesity. Periodic downturns in funding provide an opportunity to weed out the less than effective. Even you I think would agree that much of the ‘science around climate change’ is second rate – repeatedly drawing unwarranted conclusions from incomplete data and extrapolating from simulations of model climates that have not been robustly verified in terms than an engineer would regard as essential as the basis for future action. I could go round other subjects, you will have your own, where a bit belt-tightening would be positively beneficial. If much of the second-rate were squeezed out, US science would be in a better place. During Mrs Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister, UK science was squeezed hard, and I would argue came out of it better, leaner and fitter. Like dieting, it is not a healthy permanent state, but its absence is definitely unhealthy. In times of plenty, one ‘lets a thousand flowers bloom’ and in tough times, one redoubles the effort to exploit the stock of recently acquired new knowledge, rather than generate more new knowledge and leave it unexploited. This makes sound economic sense. It is the point I made in a lecture (sponsored by Intel) to the Irish Academy of Engineering in Dublin in December 2011. Science should not be privileged above all else in the nation’s finances: a little privilege only. When everyone else is feeling the pinch, and I mean those who are hungry and in fuel poverty, it ill behoves the ‘rich man in his laboratory’ being immune. If support for the arts is being cut, then the ‘cultural’ science of ‘innate curiosity’ should take a commensurate cut, and ‘science with a consideration of use’ should be privileged in what is left to spend. The US is just ending a period of artificially high federal R&D spending because of the stimulus package. Now is the time to reset the national balance between R&D and genuine entrepreneurship. You must be aware that there is not a one-to-one reciprocal relationship between science spending and social prosperity, and it is a dangerous myth to rely on or perpetuate. There has been a letter in The Times (of London) in the last week special-pleading for science. If the signatories had been industrialists rather than the scientists themselves, the case would have been more appealing and convincing.

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