Making Enemies

September 15, 2010

I am getting a bit perturbed by this Cable bashing thing. Maybe we are unwittingly making an enemy of someone who means to help.

After his Radio Four blunder, and the related speech at QMUL,  the BBC smelled rebellion in the air; the Twittersphere went into overdrive, as described in Roger Highfield’s S-word post; Peter Coles concluded that big cuts were signalled ; Brian Cox told Sun readers that Cable’s plans might be “wiping out 50% of UK research”; now Robert May says Cable is being “just plain stupid”.

Even The Daily Mail is worried about the lunacy of cutting science budgets. Crikey.

Lets get some context. The whole coalition government drastic cuts thing has me fuming. It is an ideological exercise aimed at rolling back the state, with the fiscal deficit employed cynically as a handy way to keep the public on side. The UK should be going for a mixture of modest cuts, tax rises, and infrastructural stimulus spending. Well, thats my personal opinion. But we are where we are. In that  context, Cable, a sound economist and all round good Liberal, is in a very difficult position. Every minister is saying “my Department is an exception !!”. Osborne ain’t accepting that.  What would you do in that position ? Well maybe you would talk tough while quietly protecting things that matter.

On Radio Four, speaking live, Cable implied that a large fraction of research grants are below world class. That is palpably wrong and was an appalling error. I hope he is wriggling in shame over that. Read the QMUL speech and there is no doubt what he really meant – that only 55% of the teaching staff employed at Universities are actually doing the world class research that the UK is justly famous for. But those folk already get 90% of the HEFCE/HEFCW/SFC research funding, and nearly all the RCUK grant funding. We are already pretty much doing what Cable argues for. So what is in his mind ? Clearly further steepening of the QR funding, maybe even removing QR from the lower end completely.

This could be bad, but is it “wiping out 50% of UK research” ? Of course not. Could it be misunderstood as wanting to do that ? Well yes, but only if you are looking to pick a fight.

Sometimes picking a fight is the right thing to do. Things are getting savage, and you need to establish that you ain’t a sucker to be victimised. What Cox and Highfield and others have been doing speaking up for science has been tremendously important and valuable. More please. But painting Vince Cable as Mr Evil ? Doesn’t smell right.