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September 09, 2010

In one day, Vince Cable has become an object of ridicule and loathing

 It was a momentary slip. Something, Lib Dems will say, that could happen to anyone. But one thing is for sure, Vince Cable's confusion on yesterday’s Today programme over percentages, the Research Assessment Exercise and research council grants has cost him dearly with scientists. He started the day as a reasonably new, reasonably popular cabinet minister for science. By the end of it, he was for many an object of ridicule and loathing.

To anyone who isn’t a researcher, it’s probably hard to see what the fuss is about. The key passage from Cable’s BBC interview is this:

“There was some estimate on the basis of surveys done recently that something in the order of 45 per cent of the research grants that were going through was to research that was not of excellent standard. So the bar will have to be raised.”

That 45 per cent is the sort of mind-numbing statistic that politicians hurl around every day. But to researchers who strain every intellectual sinew to win one of those coveted research council grants, it sounded like a slap in the face. Almost half our research, the Business Secretary seemed to be saying, is rubbish. In one moment, Cable had trashed the reputation of British science, and of everyone who works in it.

The reaction was swift and furious. It started on Twitter, before Cable had even left the BBC. Initially the tone was of disappointment and bewilderment.

DrPetra: I changed my vote from Labour to LibDem at last election based primarily on promises to prioritise science. I feel so let down.

Cable then had a chance to put things right when he made a set-piece speech on science. He didn’t make any more serious slips. But he was vague enough about some obvious things, such as the name of the Research Assessment Exercise, to suggest that he had not properly mastered his brief. And, presumably unaware of the storm swelling on the internet, he did not correct his earlier mistake.

By lunchtime, John Butterworth, one of the country’s leading physicists, was scornfully indulging in imagined Whitehall repartee, including this:

Minister: Oh well, we clearly should only fund excellence. It is inexcusable surely that we are funding anything that is below average?

Civil servant: Quite right minister. We should only fund the top half I would say. We should monitor it annually and if any of it is below the top half we should cut it.

(Don’t worry if you don’t get the joke. Scientists do.)

By the early afternoon, Jennifer Rohn, a post-doctoral cell biologist at University College London had issued a call to arms. She wanted a march through London. Soon there was a page where you could register for the march. And two Facebook groups, Science is Vital and Vince Cable is Wrong On Science (combined membership on Day 1, 324).

By 4 o’clock, tweeters xtaldave (a protein crystallographer) and Telescoper (a professor of theoretical astrophysics) had both posted blogs disentangling Cable’s confusions. These demonstrated that Cable’s slap in the face had all the credibility of homeopathic computer. As Telescoper put it, “This basic misunderstanding convinces me that Vince Cable is completely out of his depth in this job.” The floodgates opened as scientists took aim at the suggestion of cuts of 25 per cent. First came the one-liners on Twitter, including these from lecanardnoir and RichardWiseman:

Vince Cable will be cutting the value of Pi by 25%. All scientists must now use 2.356194490192345

Vince Cable to reduce number of planets in solar system to 6. Neptune and Mercury were not proving to be "commercially useful".

Vince Cable to remove uneconomic elements from periodic table

In line with Vince Cable's science and mathematics cut backs, squares should now only have three sides.

You may laugh. But ridicule is, for politicians, more poisonous than the harshest criticism.

Then came more blogs. There are speeches by Cable that I have, as far as I can tell, been the only person in the entire world to care about. But now bloggers and journalists were jumping into the fray. And, having lost respect for Cable, commentators felt free to ridicule what was in many ways an unremarkable speech. Many ministerial speeches are old hat, weakly argued and short on evidence. Usually they are just ignored. Not this one.

The Times Science Editor wrote, “While it would be nice to think we can achieve more by spending less, a far more probable outcome is that we will end up achieving less with less.”

“Dr Cable has urged UK scientists to ‘do more with less’,” commented the Russell Group of leading universities with haughty scorn. “They already are.”

The weary editor of the New Scientist said, “Every minister I have listened to over the past three decades has banged on about precisely the things that he did today.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering mocked Cable, contrasting his arguments for cutting science spending with quotes from Barack Obama and other leaders around the world who are spending more on science despite the recession.

During the day, Cable’s science-friendly Lib Dem colleague Evan Harris posted not one but two blogs trying to explain Cable’s position. And Research Councils UK issued  a statement clarifying what Cable had meant to say. But it was to no avail.

At the intellectual level, Cable’s ideas were criticised as “strange” and “bizarre” by Kieron Flanagan, a Manchester academic who specialises in science policy.

Bob May, who was Tony Blair’s chief scientific adviser, joined in, calling some of Cable's claims in his speech "just plain stupid".

And on it went. The Guardian’s science correspondent Alok Jha called the frenzy a “meltdown”.

Looking back, we can see the ground had been prepared by Cable’s own spin doctors, who the night before had trailed in the BBC and Guardian some particularly gloomy extracts from the speech the Business Secretary was due to deliver that morning. Lines such as "There is no justification for taxpayers' money [supporting] research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding" had already succeeded in both annoying and worrying scientists.

But it was Cable’s own stumbling performance on the Today programme that lit the touch paper. And now, in the space of just a day, it has become open season on the Business Secretary.

“Oh Vince,” blogged Paul Dobson, a bioinformatics postdoc in Sheffield, at the end of the day. “What have you done? You seemed like such a nice, sensible chap.”



If you're wondering what Cable really meant on the Today programme, take a look at my own analysis of Cable's speech. This explains that he was in fact only talking about a cut of 2 per cent in government science spending...


Other responses

Universities UK - the coalition government is in danger of sending the message that the UK is not a serious player in the field of science and innovation.

TUC - Cutting science budget is 'exactly the wrong thing to do'

Tomfoolery - Unfortunately for Cable, his judgment on science comes across as almost insulting

Nature’s Great Beyond blog - Generally the feeling seems to be that Cable doesn’t really understand science

Austin Elliot - If the idea that you could tell in advance just what science was going to be important later was a bunch of bulllshit then, then it's just as much of a bunch of bullshit now.

Benjamin Brooks - There isn’t such a thing as “Mediocre research”

The Daily Telegraph blog - Tell Vince Cable: science cuts are a bad idea

Guardian report - Scientist line up to condemn government budgets cuts, thought to be as high as 25%

dellybean diary - no other country, despite suffering from a shared financial crisis, seems to consider cuts in science as an option

Gimpyblog - Is Cable saying scientists are inherently more rational and less prejudiced than other members of society?

And a special thanks to Beck Smith at the Biochemical Society for various links I'd missed - what followed suggested that a valued contribution would not be sufficient to protect science from significant spending cuts.


Thursday update - Debate continues at:

Telescoper's blog

Kieron Flanagon's blog

The S Word (New Scientist)

Science is Vital group


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"(Don’t worry if you don’t get the joke. Scientists do.)"

Is that enough?

I thought Kieron's point about expectation management on the Times was a reasonable one - that although the speech was delivered in a university, maybe we should think of the target audience as outside that little box - the media, the wider public and the Conservative Party.

Maybe the science fuss is the focus, and even if it isn't will make enough noise to be seen as such later. I really don't.

I suspect they will need to make their case to these other audiences though, and not *just* build a complain of complaint amongst themselves. I don't think the campaign will work if it is built entirely on Save British Science style standing up for the right to be heard as scientists, it will have to be a matter of showing people why this is important. Science will have to go about explaining its jokes.

Sorry finger-slip - "will make enough noise to be seen as such later. I really don't" should end "I really don't know".

I'll be interested to see how the protest idea works out.

Am quite seriously keeping an open mind on this.

A joke you have to explain was never any good in the first place, Alice.

I'm open minded about the "protest" too. Lot's of people are going to be protesting in the next months and years about lots of things.

To me the key is the economic argument (first part of my "joke" piece William quotes from). If you accept it, you don't cut science. They say they accept it (good), but still plan to cut science (inconsistent at best). Protests may help force that issue?

Jon, Alice,

Protest or not, someone needs to get out there and explain the 45% error. Listening to the (usually-wonderful) Colin Blakemore on Today prog this morning was horrible - he couldn't explain the error and was unconvincing on why you can't predict the value of research beforehand.

Also, why did he not say that 45% is from RAE rankings and that RC funding is focused (more than 90%) on the 54% of departments. Research is already concentrated. Cable is a disaster. Blakemore didn't help though.

Jon - hey some of the best jokes are ones only small groups get! I think you are right about forcing inconsistency of economic point too.

I suspect Alok's right to focus on 43% though - correcting that will be part of sci com'ty taking more control of the "expectation management" business.

I don't think Roger Highfield will be the last to call for the return of SBS. CaSE probably needs to think about how to play this card. Probably are actually.

I think Alok Jha is right to focus on the 45% claim. It is very probably just a slip by a busy and sleep-deprived minister not fully in command of his brief. But it is also a powerful way of preparing the ground by undermining arguments for maintaining funding at the current levels.

Having said that I would (again) make a plea for the follow-up debate not to be just focused on threats to 'basic' research funding. What we are talking about is the impact of cuts or changes on the UK's system for doing, and for taking advantage of, research. It's the health of the system that is important. For instance even small cuts of the kind William Bown talks about in relation to withdrawing QR from lower-rated units could have massive long-term negative impacts by reducing diversity in the system.

Oh, on the subject of CaSE reverting to 'Save British Science': this is something I jokingly suggested months ago. The organisation arguably lost a little credibility by not changing its name sooner during the Blair/Brown basic research boom years. Changing the name back as a response to this, or to the CSR settlement, would have a powerful symbolic impact, I guess. Problem is, a symbolic impact after the CSR settlement is announced will be worthless in campaigning terms.

Vince Cable is not a minister for science, he's the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

What an egregious mistake you've made, I now declare you an object of ridicule and loathing.

Hey Anon, don't shoot the messenger, I didn't make up all those tweets. And Cable is the Cabinet minister responsible for science.

I'll be interested to see how the protest idea works out.

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