The UK's science base needs better care, argues Sue Ferns

As the union representing public sector scientists, Prospect is calling for urgent action to stem the loss of key science research facilities and staff.   

It may not be immediately obvious why we are so concerned. After all, public sector science has a record to be proud of and the UK government is not anti-science - far from it. Their commitment to the role of science and innovation in underpinning and driving economic growth is set out in the 10-year Science and innovation investment framework, and since 1997 we have seen significant increases in expenditure on the science base. But good science doesn’t always have commercial application and science in the public interest is under threat.  

In the past couple of years the government has closed world-leading institutes and programmes, including research into breast cancer, food toxicology, and animal diseases. Research on the impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity all face substantial cuts. 

Public sector scientists face uncertain futures, continual organisational reviews, and poor career prospects. No wonder that morale is low, and that many scientists are voting with their feet even before the axe falls.  

A recent survey undertaken by Prospect showed that more than four in 10 working scientists are either unsure they will be able to stay in science or certain they will leave. The figure is all the more disturbing when more than three quarters of the respondents in the same survey - 77 per cent - said they would prefer to stay in science. 

Furthermore, our own investigations show that once public research facilities close, fewer than one in four of the staff find alternative employment in scientific research anywhere in the economy. This represents a major loss of investment in highly qualified and highly skilled staff.  

It also sends a very negative message to students or university leavers who may be thinking about a career in science. The UK needs decent science pay and careers, otherwise graduates will take their talents elsewhere. There is already evidence that, with pay lagging behind the external market, research councils are struggling to attract key scientific staff.  

It is an indictment of the continuing cycle of cuts and closures that this year Prospect has published three different briefings highlighting the difficulties facing various parts of the public sector science base1 - the research councils, Scottish science and Defra’s agencies.  

The message is clear: there is a strategic failure across government to take on the key responsibility of care for the national science base. Devolved decision making has allowed research institutes to cut or close facilities on the basis of business cases that may make sense in the context of their own narrow remits, but have no regard for the wider implications for Britain’s core scientific capability.  

Complex, competitively-based funding arrangements leave many research institutes with a low level of core funding from their parent bodies. It only takes a change in research priorities by one funding body to destabilise the entire organisation. Moreover, the government does not even know how many scientists it employs, let alone their areas of expertise. It therefore cannot make any credible assessment of its own capability to meet future needs.  

The upshot is that at present nobody can honestly answer our question, ’Who’s looking after the nation’s science?’ This worries us, not just because it directly affects our members, but because we genuinely believe that the nation’s science base needs and deserves better care.  

For these reasons, Prospect has published a charter for public science, setting out the actions the government needs to take to contain the mounting crisis in public science. The charter calls for recognition of the crucial role played by science for the public good; decent pay and careers for staff; a halt to cost-driven lab closures and privatisation; and open decision making.  

We also want a cabinet minister with authority and accountability for public sector science and a similar ministerial role in the devolved administrations.  

We will be working over the coming months to build a broad base of support for our charter. Only then will UK science have a secure future. 

Sue Ferns is head of research and specialist services at Prospect.