Science Is Vital – my Journey
In almost exactly one month (since Vince Cable gave his speech and the subsequent call-to-arms from Dr Jenny Rohn) Science Is Vital became a petition of over 24,000 signatures, a 2000-strong rally and it had dates in the diary for a lobby of Parliament and an official visit to 10 Downing Street to personally deliver the list of all petition signatories.
Still now I cannot believe I have been working at the core of this campaign and to be honest it hasn’t given me the time to even think about it. I posted a comment on Jenny’s blogpost about applying for a protest and that I was ready for action and that was it, I was sucked in. Thereafter it completely consumed every spare minute I had but I would have given more if I had it. I have to admit, at the very first Science Is Vital meeting in the Prince Arthur pub in Euston, sitting around the same table as Dr Jenny Rohn, Dr Richard Grant, Dr Evan Harris, Imran Khan and Dr Hilary Leevers I did wonder how the hell I got there (save the literal sense) and what on Earth I was expected to bring to the cause. Not everyone could make the initial meeting, however, shortly afterwards the core team had become a larger stronghold of members including Prof Stephen Curry, Dr Lewis Dartnell, Michelle Brook, Tom Whyntie, Dr Alice Bell, Dr Tom Hartley, Grace Baynes and CaSE researcher Nick Hall.
I was given the task to infiltrate the Universities up and down the country, to try to get the message to science and engineering students who would be affected by the proposed funding cuts in the future. For this, I required contact details of every sabbatical member of all student unions, together with each head of department, their administrator and Dean of every Science and Engineering campus – that’s a lot of email addresses. I began to collate the student union details and it was proving a lengthy and time-consuming workload, so for the heads etc we used twitter to crowd-source for some help and we were amazed with the response (although it does always help to have high profile twitterers such as CaSE, Evan and Prof Brian Cox to retweet your request). Shane McCracken set up a public google document listing all the universities so that the (wonderful) volunteers – too many to thank by name – could fill in the necessary details. I still don’t believe I have thanked them enough for all the work they did on that, so if you’re one of them – BIGGEST THANK YOU!! A special thanks, however, goes to Heather Stevens for her infinite help in every way that was possible, it was greatly appreciated.
With every Science Is Vital team member having their own responsibilities, together with the cumulative queries from all angles, it was proving awkward to keep track of threads via our conventional emails so Shane assigned us all to a “Basecamp” program and that made life so much easier. Through Basecamp we could raise questions and monitor our campaign’s progress by posting messages on the wall, creating to-do lists, marking milestones and publishing documents on writeboards before sending them out officially.
In the meantime, the website was being coded by Matt Brealey in order to provide potential supporters with an online petition to sign and a link to find out who their MP was so that they could write to them. Little did we know just how successful the campaign would turn out to be. By midnight on 23rd September, the day the petition went live, we had received over 1500 signatures and since then the signatories have continued to rise at what almost feels like an exponential rate. I would, and still do, leave the petition page on a tab and periodically refresh the screen to see the jump in number of signatories – far more exciting than a bidding war on ebay, for me anyway, as it is proof of the fruits of our labour and is very rewarding to see. What really hit home about the petition was reading the occupation of each signatory because they were not limited to just science and engineering; we had house husbands, solicitors, musicians, taxi drivers, people who are retired, postmen and also a carer for her husband who has Motor Neurone Disease. This campaign has proven to me that science touches the lives of many, if not all of us at some point and science really is vital.
So much hard work has been (and still is being) put into the campaign. Many letters were being drafted, rally logistics were being calculated (with no thanks to the Metropolitan Police I hasten to add), liability insurance was being investigated (the biggest headache of them all), 200 pieces of wood were being sawn single-handedly with a poxy hand saw that gave nasty blisters *ahem*, the website was continually being updated, interviews were given, blogs were posted; the list goes on. We had so much help through twitter and facebook, not to mention friends and family who were so eager to help any way they possibly could from designing posters and T-shirts to offering to steward at the rally. We were doing everything in our manpower to get the message out there and what a rollercoaster ride it turned out to be, but a fun one all the same. I particularly enjoyed collating slogans for our placards, which we achieved by tweeting out the request for some ideas. We had such an amazing response and my particular favourite (aside from Jenny’s original “No More Dr Nice Guy”) was by Alex Davenport : “Banks don’t cure diseases, we do”, which in the final edit for print became “Banks don’t cure disease”.
I really cannot even begin to imagine how Jenny must be feeling right now about the results of her knee-jerk response blogpost, but I can begin to explain how it makes me feel. Never would I have imagined that in just four weeks we could achieve so much support as over 36,000 signatures on the petition – wow!!
So how did the rally go?
Quickly!! With Evan as our MC, Jenny and Imran with their gearing speeches and a list of truly inspirational speakers the time just flew by and I believe it was a great experience for all who attended, all 2000 of us. We feel so honoured to boast such a great list of speakers and comedians, with Dr. Mark Miodownik, Simon Denegri, Vivenne Hill talking about the importance of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, Michael Brooks, Timandra Harkness, Paul Noon, Prof Colin Blakemore, Simon Singh, Dean Burnett, cancer survivor Claire Daniels, Dr Petra Boynton and Dr. Ben Goldacre. If I’m not mistaken, I believe the crowd even enjoyed the musical interjections of Evan and the “Evanettes” giving their own renditions of Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. Evan insisted for the latter song that we helped display the revised lyrics on A3 paper and it proved more fidley than hoped but after I dragged my work colleague, Tina Parusheva, in to help we managed it in the end.
Amongst the enormous amount of fun that we all shared, we also had a serious message: to cut science and engineering funding would be detrimental to the economy. The proposed cuts may provide a short-term fix but would, in turn, provide long-term battles as we would lag behind our international competitors such as USA and Germany who believe science is essential for boosting the economy and so are investing further money into these sectors.
The rally received some great publicity including live morning interviews on both radio and TV, coverage from the BBC, the Guardian, the Metro, the Pod Delusion and many websites, blogs, organisations and student magazines. If George Osborne had not heard the 2000 voices loud and clear from our pitch right outside HM Treasury, we at least had a good chance he would hear it through some form of media channel. I felt like we all had enough energy to rally all day but, sadly, it came to an end after just two hours. Then while Jenny, Richard and Imran headed back with the van and dropped all the remaining placards and other rally paraphernalia off at CaSE HQ, the rest of us jubilant crowd headed for The Old Shades pub down the road.
Next stop: The Houses of Parliament
There wasn’t much time reserved for rest because three days later came the lobby: at 3:30pm in Committee Room 10 of The Houses of Parliament. I don’t get appointments like that everyday and this was my first lobby so I had no idea what to expect.
After security checks and receiving our visitor ID badges we all congregated in the cafe and I emailed one last plea to my MP, Jeremy Corbyn, to come and meet with me at the lobby. We had the unfortunate timing of our lobby coinciding with Vince Cable’s speech on Education and the Browne Review. We knew a lot of MPs would be tied up with this, but at least we knew we had a good chance our MPs would be in the building. In light of that fact and in addition to my email I, along with others lobbyists who hadn’t heard from their MP, wrote out a green request form to call on our MPs to come a talk with us – it was our last chance. After handing in our requests and finding some time to admire the grandeur of Parliament’s interior, we headed to our committee room and I can quite honestly say that I’ve never simultaneously felt so confident, so proud and so determined about anything in my life as I did at that moment.
Imran chaired the meeting and opened with a warm welcome and thanks to the brimming room of attendees, together with brief background on what brought us all together there. At the top bench, Imran was joined by Jenny, Prof Adrian Smith, Professor Colin Blakemore and, later, Julian Huppert MP. The second speech from Jenny substantiated why science is not only vital for the economy, but it is a way of life – from the safety of our drinking water to the smart phones we use on a daily basis and how science creates a luxury that allows us to forget the dangers of the world. Jenny also reminded us of the success that the campaign had achieved so far and how the rally and the petition were a celebration and an underscoring of the support we had received. All facts to be immensely proud of.
Prof Colin Blakemore then spoke of the prestigious Medical Research Council and how science research through this council alone had achieved 29 Nobel Prizes. He continued with staggering examples of how innovation was achieved through fundamental curiosity research, the very research threatened by the proposed cuts. These examples included magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the discovery of penicillin and how the study of monoclonal antibodies resulted in a worth of multi-billion pounds. Prof Blakemore went on to highlight the fact that even many people of a non-science background recognise that science is vital. He also reminded us of the previous slow gradual decline in science funding during the 1980’s and 90’s that affected research quality and how this presented difficulties in recruiting researchers, especially from overseas – highlighting the topical “Brain Drain” issue in recent media coverage. Confidence in UK science and engineering was soon restored as the funding increased and high quality education and research led to the rise of UK excellence, averaging at producing 14% of the highest impact citations. Despite the great shape of science, Prof Blakemore explained how the UK maintains the lowest level of investment on OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) tables in the whole of the G7.
We were then fortunate to have a brief visit and speech from David Morris Conservative MP for Morcambe and Lunesdale. David’s constituency is home to Heysham nuclear power station, one of the eight sites recently confirmed by the government as suitable for future nuclear power stations. It was with no surprise, therefore, that he announced his belief that science funding should be preserved and he echoed the earlier opinion that too much is taken for granted. David also highlighted the importance of encouraging the interests of younger generations into science and engineering because these sectors are vital for the future economy.
Imran then read out a statement from Chi Onwurah Labour MP for Newcastle Central which initially made apologies for not being able to attend due to supporting her BIS colleagues for the Browne Review. The statement was powerfully encouraging for the campaign; explaining how science and engineering are of the most important sources for fuelling our economy and growing our way out of the recession. Chi’s statement also made good examples out of the large companies that heavily rely on science research, not to mention how important an effect it has on the global reputation of the UK also.
With a career foundation based around science research, Julian knows all to well the difficulties already faced by post-docs searching for that next grant. Julian expressed his concerns with the distinct lack of a chief science advisor in the Treasury and how a lot of talent was lost in the last election, rendering only two MPs with PhDs in the House of Commons. At the time of the lobby the EDM 767 had gained only 50 signatures and Julian was confident it would build up in the run up to the CSR; and he was right – by the time of the CSR, 117 MPs had signed it. Julian believed science and engineering were very likely to be facing some degree of funding cuts, however, anything less than 25% should be welcomed as evidence of a successful campaign. His outlook for long-term security described how it funding could follow two paths: it could decrease and then rise again or it could decrease and then decrease again and so he stressed that there was more work for scientists to do, that we had to speak up.
With Vince Cable engaged in his speech a few doors down the hallway, Prof Adrian Smith communicated his statement on his behalf. Apologise for his absence were made, then he began to explain how investment was critical and he personally believed there has been a problem with the economy for many years. He acknowledged the fact that the UK has the second strongest university system in the world but it is constrained. His concerns with research lay with the inability to predict the individual benefits of each piece of research, so they must be prioritised because the greater focus is to maximise economic growth and international competitiveness through excellence. He concluded by saying he understood the concerns that brought about the lobby and he did believe that science and engineering is vital for growth.
By the end of the read-out a number of MPs had gathered at the back of the committee room, all willing to meet their constituents and discuss their concerns. The speeches were over by 4:30pm, however, we had the room until 5:00pm so those who wanted to were able to wait around in anticipation that their MPs would show. 5 o’clock arrived and sadly there was still no-show for my MP. Then, just as I was about to leave, Hilary called out his name as he was just walking up the stairs to see if we were still there – I was elated. He invited me down to the halfway house cafe located between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which is considered “neutral” grounds for the two sides; with red carpets representing the Lords and green seats representing the Commons. Over a drink and a scone I expressed my concerns. The meeting was encouraging as Jeremy confessed he came from a whole family of scientists and he understood how important it was for the economy. He convinced me that he was completely supportive of the campaign and it was great to see him being true to his word when, shortly afterwards, his signature appeared on the EDM.
All in all, in my opinion, the lobby was a great move forward. We had a packed committee room, great representations and speeches and many of the attendees got the opportunity to speak with their MPs. On the advice of Julian, however, we still had a lot of work to do in reaching out to the MPs who had not yet replied to their constituents so the next 48 hours were the most crucial. So, without further a do, we sent requests out into the twittersphere to encourage people to contact their MPs and sign the petition, guestblogs were written, audioboos were posted and videoblogs were posted.
The next step was to ensure we had as many signatories on the petition as possible before it went to print, ready for delivery to 10 Downing Street – just two days away!!
Delivering the petition to 10 Downing Street
At the time the petition went to print it had achieved 33,804 signatures and at 11am on Thursday 14th October, we could not wait to hand it in. With the added support from the Baron Willis of Knaresborough and Prof Colin Blakemore we headed through security with our photographer Joe Dunckley and walked up to the world-famous door.
We faffed around for a few minutes, staging a few photo moments holding the petition and soaking up every proud moment just being there and reflecting on everything that the campaign had achieved in the run up to that day. It was such a monumental occasion when the security guy opened the door and took the weighty petition out of Jenny’s grasp. All those hours of hard work, all that support and everything that the campaign had stood for and achieved was condensed to a few thousand pieces of paper and then it was in the hands of the government.
After the petition was handed in there was nobody ushering us out to make way for the next visitors so we pretty much just hung out on Downing Street for about half an hour in total. Prof Blakemore, Imran, Richard, and Jenny we’re being interviewed on camera whereas Michelle and I stood there in complete awe about what had just happened.
Just when we thought that was it for the day, it seemed the campaign had caught the attention of a couple of important figures:
and in response to the second comment, Imran had confirmed we had an appointment to meet with David Willets at BIS. We had an hour to kill so we topped up with refreshments and then made our way over.
Julian Huppert also joined us for the meeting and this was a great opportunity to explain our concerns about the funding cuts, face to face with David Willets. It was a real privilege because it is not common for ministers to speak with the public in these situations, particularly real-life working scientists. This was the first time I have spoken to a minister before and despite Michelle pointing out that I looked quite nervous, I felt so confident and passionate about what my concerns. I knew I had one shot at what I wanted to say and when my time came, I said it and I was so pleased to hear afterwards that it was just as coherent to others as it had seemed to me but, most importantly, was exactly what I needed to say.
After leaving BIS that afternoon, it was then all out of our hands. Nobody could say we had not tried everything and had not given it our all for the past 5 weeks of our lives. All that was left was the waiting game: what would be the fate of science and engineering come the CSR?
The eve of the official CSR announcement
The night before the CSR results an apparent good source had leaked some information about the outcome for science and engineering funding and it was reported here. Could this be true? Science funding was spared. Cuts were frozen for the next three years. All I could hear was Julian Huppert’s comment resonating in my mind: “anything less than 25% cuts means a successful campaign” so this was great news. Despite such promising revelations, I just couldn’t commit myself to celebrating the news because I had to be sure it was official and so I still had another night to sleep on it.
The CSR Result
CSR day arrived and I knew the announcements were due to begin at 12:30pm. As I was at work, I had to rely on the power of twitter to provide me with the news and so I watched Julian Huppert’s tweets with the greatest attention possible and then soon enough there it was:
WOW!! It was official. So no cuts at all (except of course for the 8.9% over the four years due to inflation) must mean we really made a difference. Like Jenny said in her subsequent Guardian guestblog here, there is no controlled experiment to see what would have happened without Science Is Vital, however, my MP wrote in his letter to me that Science Is Vital “really hammered the message home to Government Ministers”, which sounds to me like we had some effect.
I have heard some people suggesting that the original speech by Vince Cable that Wednesday morning was the beginning of a whole conspiracy theory to ruffle the feathers of us scientists so that when frozen funding was announced we would all be enormously grateful. Well, we are but I don’t believe in a conspiracy theory. What I do believe is that if they really wanted to go to that trouble, why then did they not tell the arts they were going to be cut by 60% so that they would be pleased with their massive 30% cuts?
Every single supporter, donator, blogger and team member involved in Science Is Vital made a difference to the CSR result for science and engineering funding, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!!
For those who subscribe to The Times Online, you can also read my guestblog about why this campaign was important to me here.