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Michael Banks: October 2010 Archives

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Scientists protest against impending cuts to the UK science budget

By Leila Sattary

On Saturday I joined more than 2000 scientists who gathered outside the UK Treasury in Westminster to attend the Science is Vital rally to protest against the expected cuts to the UK science budget.

I was one of the thousands of lab-coat-wearing protesters cheering and chanting below UK chancellor George Osborne’s window as he worked on the figures for the impending Comprehensive Spending Review, which is due to be published next week and set department budgets for the next four years.

It is unnatural for scientists to gather to talk about money, of all things, but that just shows the worry they feel about the likely spending cuts to the UK science budget. Politicians should recognize how very unusual it is for scientists to come out of the lab and on to the street to protest.

While many of the protesters who attended the rally were young scientists, obviously worried about their future careers in science in the UK, it was clear to me that most people were there because they are fundamentally concerned about the future wellbeing of our country and how the UK could fall without sustained funding for science.

Science is Vital was started by cell biologist Jenny Rohn. In a few short weeks, with the help of Facebook and Twitter, word had spread that scientists were mobilizing to support the future of science funding in the UK. In addition to the rally, Science is Vital has also organized a petition, which now has more than 25,000 signatures and will be presented to Parliament on Tuesday.

Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat and science supporter, acted as coordinator and rustled the group of geeks into something that almost resembled a protest mob chanting “Hey, Osbourne, leave our labs alone.” He might not be much of a singer, but Evan certainly understands what makes politicians tick. Despite our attempts at chanting and being an angry horde the atmosphere was good spirited and festival-like with just as much laughing at nerd jokes as protesting.

Speakers at the rally included Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science.

Mark Miodownik, head of the Material Research Group at Kings College London, who is giving this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures also spoke and reminded scientists to stick together. He told us that in our fight against funding cuts we should avoid being divided by scientific faction by the desire to protect our own subject area, and instead work together to give a strong and unified message to government.

Overall, scientists were not whining and not threatening; in typical scientific style, they were stating the facts – science is vital.

Leila Sattary is a projects officer at the University of Oxford and a freelance writer

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Evan Harris rallies the troops