Scientists are harnessing public support to strengthen their political muscle

As the festive season comes around once again, our thoughts turn to gifts for our loved ones, family reunions and the inevitable overindulgence. But along with the tinsel, baubles and good cheer, there are exhortations to think of the less fortunate. And this year, judging by the noises coming from across the continent, it is European scientists that find themselves in dire straits.

As belts are tightened all over Europe, scientists have been caught up by politicians’ ardour for austerity. Everywhere you look, science is under pressure. French scientists complain of understaffing and universities so short of money they may not be able to pay staff. Portuguese chemistry labs face a very unhappy Christmas with a third of departments receiving no government support over the next five years. Spain’s largest research institution has instituted a freeze on hiring graduates. And the latest figures on government cash for UK science and engineering shows that it has been in decline since 2009. The bad news keeps coming with the announcement that the European commission has abolished the post of chief scientific adviser, which had given science a voice at the very heart of European policymaking. All-in-all it adds up to an annus horribilis for European research.

As the old aphorism goes, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and, unsurprisingly, scientists don’t vote for funding cuts. But their lack of political clout has left researchers in trouble, as scientists aren’t a large voting bloc that politicians need to woo. In the past, scientists have been happy to influence politicians behind closed doors. They’ve let top researchers make the case for all and left their academy or society to do the leg work of lobbying. Indeed, Mark Peplow chides UK scientists for keeping quiet in the public debate about the UK withdrawing from the EU and the tremendous harm this would do to the nation’s research. But all is not lost, and scientists are learning that if pleas to politicians go unanswered, then the public is prepared to?listen.

Across Europe researchers have been rallying to highlight their plight and, most importantly, to show the public why science matters. These scientists recognise that to get the general public, and by extension politicians, behind them they need to make the case that in a technologically sophisticated economy, science, engineering and maths are the tools for future prosperity.

Whatever the outcome, it’s a welcome example of getting stuck in and talking to the public. If the seeds of a strong science base aren’t planted today, then our children cannot harvest the fruits of innovation tomorrow. By and large the public has been very receptive to this message, engaging with scientists and supporting the idea that science and prosperity cannot be uncoupled. A brilliant example of scientists connecting with the public and long may it last.

Vive la révolution and a prosperous new year for all!