A Rant about Science Lobbying in the UK

I keep seeing ‘news’ articles about how science in the UK needs support, needs more funding. We need to love scientists more, so it goes. We need children to learn to love science. Schools need to value science more. The economy needs science. Science is fundamental. Science is the future. We need to dispel any idea that scientists are like the pathetic scientists in the James Bond films. Science is cool! Look at Brian Cox!

We get bombarded with this stuff in the UK. Brian Cox is just always there, and here, saying that British science funding is only £3.5bn per year, which he terms a ‘ludicrously small investment.’ And here he is again, in the Times, under a title saying that ‘science cuts’ will ‘devastate the economy’. I have just quoted from The Guardian, the BBC, and the Times. These are well respected newspapers, and yet they are allowing Brian to lobby – again and again, non-stop, as a permanent fixture – for the sciences.

I find this lobbying annoying. My understanding is that there are lots of important and worthwhile things that could use a bit of funding, but that government funding is limited, so the money needs to be divided fairly. As an arts and humanities postgraduate, my impression is that science gets its fair share, or even more than its fair share. And science is also fundamentally wealthy because it is a driving force behind medicine, pharmaceuticals, weapons technology, engineering, computer technology, etc etc. Does science need the money?

There is something inevitable about science receiving massive funding, because science is inextricably linked to the wealthy industries. Asking for science funding is like asking for money to fund capitalism or consumer consumption. When Eisenhower warned Americans of the Military Industrial Complex, he might as well have been warning the world that science and industry would work together to promote their shared interests. The power of groups such as the RAND Corporation or the Carlyle Group are huge. Consider the role of Monsanto (the manufacturers of Agent Orange) in the American Vietnam Conflict. These are companies that play a role in starting wars so that they can make profit. OK, so these are the worst aspects of science. But they go to show that big money is just always there for the sciences, and a lot of it is dirty money. Massive money comes from consumption of technology too. Computers, Iphones, cars, etc etc. It’s the stuff that contributes to pollution and climate change as well as ‘development’ and ‘progress’.

Another thing that concerns me is that science seems to have by far the most powerful lobby groups. I studied to be a tutor a few years ago, to teach English Language/Literature in FE colleges. At policy levels, science lobby groups have influence over many aspects of education. There’s the Royal Society, for example – a name that crops up a lot in educational policy terms. Their educational mission statement is basically that they promote the interests of science:

Our education work aims to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to appreciate the value of science and to engage with it. We focus on helping schools to work with the best scientists and on recognising excellence in education.

This sounds quite innocent and helpful, on the face of it, but the flip side to this mission is presumably that they would not be interested in, or supportive of, aspects of education that were not based in ‘science’. Essentially, they are pro science. They lobby for science! If you argue for the arts, they will argue that science is more important, more valuable, more necessary.

It would probably be a bit paranoid of me to read too many sinister overtones into the Royal Society spiel. There is also a Royal Society for the Arts (RSA), for example, and their spiel is much the same as that of the The Royal Society. They use the same arguments, saying that the arts boost the economy, etc etc. Blah blah blah. But how often in the UK do we see lobbying from the RSA? How often do the BBC or The Guardian run articles that complain about cuts to arts funding? No doubt there are one or two, but I don’t notice them as much as the Brian Cox pieces I see so often.

So what I find most annoying is that Brian Cox is claiming more money for a field that is already wealthy, influential, and thus powerful. It seems akin to a wealthy man pushing through a queue of poor people, or to setting up a charity for the Bush family. I imagine that the reason Brian is getting all of his articles into the major newspapers is because he is getting funding to pay for these articles. I don’t know for sure whether he pays for these articles to get printed, but it seems likely to me since he is open about representing a science lobbying group, Science is Vital. Such lobbying groups fund campaigns in the media to further their own interests. It’s what they do. It’s what lobbying is.

Another thing that disturbs me, here, is that the newspapers present Brian’s lobbying as actual news articles, rather than advertisements or lobbying pieces. They are lobbying pieces, and they should be presented as such. It worries me that the press seem to be in on the act, in this sense, when they should be presenting information in an open and honest way. Essentially, the esteemed broadsheet press are providing Brian Cox with a platform from which he can lobby. This should worry all of us. It makes me wonder if Brian’s lobbying backers are even paying for him to have a job at the BBC. Perhaps a bit of a paranoid leap for me to make there, but it is surely possible, much in the same way that F1 racing drivers carry backing with them – backing that gets them into a team.

I should add that I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to science. I have recently completed a PhD on writing processes. As a student from an arts tradition, I felt that the whole field of writing process theory was swayed too far in favour of the sciences. I got the distinct impression that the word ‘science’ carries a semiotic value that is positive, as if scientific research is necessarily ‘good’ research. I heard science based tutors advising students that to do ‘scientific’ research (or, by association, to use the word ‘science’ in a proposal) would help you to get funding. The implication was that funding bodies favoured ‘science’. As a non science person myself, I found it frustrating to hear so many pro science voices. No doubt there is a simple inevitability about the power of the sciences though, simply because they have the economy behind them – industry, medicine, war etc. Perhaps I just need to come to terms with this. If, like me, you study arts, history, or philosophy, perhaps you just need to accept that your voice will mainly be peripheral, or serve as some kind of entertainment.The pro science voices are so omnipresent, so often repeated, that no doubt we will simply come to believe them. That’s how advertising can work. Just keep bombarding people with the same words, the same images.

My suspicion is also that arts and humanities (e.g. history) are an awkward sell in terms of how much they appeal to governments. Governments and politicians like a powerful GDP, so they like to promote business, wealth production, ‘progress’, etc – which science is a part of. These are people who need oil, steel, trade, massive amounts of energy. They need to go into Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in cynical terms, they are not averse to wars, since wars are a testing ground for developing weapons technologies. Think RAND! Think Carlyle Group! These are people who can sell us the lie of how Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or that we went into Afghanistan to bring democracy to the people. Think of the Dodgy Dossier, and how little interest the British politicians had in the actual history, the actual state of affairs. Imagine, conversely, a nation of historians. They would warn us of what we have previously sought when we invaded Afghanistan, such as control over opium or trade routes, and how wars are mostly about making money, securing empires etc. Imagine a philosophy or Literature student trying to theorize the kinds of dilemmas at stake when a powerful Western country claims that it is trying to free the people of a little oil rich country. None of it would stand the test. Governments do not want these kinds of historians or philosophers, because they would be critical of wars and war mongering. And governments need war mongering, because it makes money. The arts and humanities, in this sense, are a much more difficult sell than the sciences. What price on the serious knowledge? What price on critical knowledge? Scientists, by contrast, are very rarely vocal in their criticism of war.

And, before I finish… I think my main concern is simply the mindset that goes with lobbying. To lobby is to argue for one interest, one concern. So a lobbyist, in an important sense, is not a balanced human being, not a reasonable arbiter. They do not stand outside of a subject and weigh the various arguments. They are not meta or wise in this sense. They simply back their own corner. And it is this mindset which is central to how a democracy and capitalism works. It is how advertising works – ‘buy my product’. It is how politicians present themselves – they present one side of an argument. But in my idealistic mind, I do not want the press to support lobbying. I want a press that stands outside, just enough to provide a commentary on what is happening. I want the press to provide an intellient and meta critique on the world that we live in. And I am not seeing much sign of this. Perhaps I’m just getting older, and more critical/pessimistic. Or perhaps the press has lost balance in the way that it operates, as a whole.

Rant over!

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About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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