Making Enemies

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.

15 Responses to Making Enemies

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Surely, the line we should have taken was to agree with him wholeheartedly that the right thing to do in these tough times is to stop funding the ~45% of below-international research that he had identified in the RAE, and get off remarkably lightly with a 10% cut to QR funding!

    Unfortunately, however, I fear we are in for a significantly rougher time, not least because it is a lot easier for any politician to sell to the electorate cuts to blue-skies research than cuts to secondary education or pensions.

    And unfortunately we also find ourselves in the catch-22 situation that the louder we wail and gnash our teeth, the more politically acceptable it becomes given the Schadenfreude of a significant fraction of the electorate when it comes to witnessing the suffering of what are likely to be seen as arrogant intellectuals.

  2. Steve Eales says:

    Andy, like you, I veer from pessimism to optimism about what’s in the minds of the ministers. Here’s a cheery thought. With 3% inflation and an effective pay freeze over four years, a 25% cut would correspond to only
    a 13% cut in real terms. With money clawed back from the
    international subscriptions, as STFC seem to be trying to negotiate, it may not be too bad after all….

  3. telescoper says:

    In case you hadn’t noticed, Andy, we already have enemies.

  4. andyxl says:

    This Nature News article has a very sane and interesting insight into Ministerial thinking. Says “forget Willets and Cable, Cameron and Osborne call the shots”.

  5. andyxl says:

    Another interesting, and worrying, update : David Willetts not apologisingfor the 45% gaffe.

    • John Womersley says:


      I think the point you were originally trying to make with this post is still valid. There is probably little political gain to be had in attacking science and scientists – even the Daily Mail is opposed to science cuts. But if Cable and Willetts begin to feel they are being ridiculed by the science community every time they make what must seem to them like a minor slip of the tongue, they will come to find science and scientists just plain annoying. They may even start to feel “what’s the point of defending such a community?” Needless to say, this would Not Be Good.


      • ian smail says:

        …it was a little more significant than a “minor slip of the tongue” and equally these are politicians – surely they can take reasonable criticism when they make a mistake and don’t take the opportunity to correct it?

        anyway – instead of debating the minutae of ministerial double-talk – what can you tell us about STFC planning for implementing the expected cuts? i, for one, am still interested to see the broad-brush costings for projects/subscriptions/exploitation/administration etc across the astronomy programme. richard said he was considering how to most appropriately present this material for a public audience.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am not sure that “Minister declines to blatantly admit that his department screwed up” is particularly surprising or worrying at this point, Andy.

  7. richard wade says:

    Yes I am still trying to figure out how to give you the detail that would make the information meaningful without without losing the big picture.

    • Paul Crowther says:


      i too would be interested in this information making it into the public arena.. perhaps the next Astro Forum in October would be suitable opportunity?


  8. richard wade says:

    I was thinking of a summary of the whole programme, with the numbers for this year’s spend. Will probably just put it on the web. I will try to send you an a draft so you can tell me if it helps.

  9. andyxl says:

    This FT article is really interesting. (Paul C alerted us to this on Twitter) Maybe university teaching is going to get the big hit. Not sure how to interpret this North of the Border !

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