We can afford to pay bankers but not scientists?

SignsSymbols_0079This is a politics rant about cuts to the science and education budgets. One of the advantages of having your own website and working for yourself is that you can write what you like, please indulge me, I am about to have a rant…

Obviously, I am a scientist and have spent most of my working life in higher education in one form or another, so as you would expect, I think science is important, I think it is worth investing in. I also think it is worth educating our young people.

The Chancellor has announced that £600m will be “saved” by 2012/13 from across “higher education, science and research budgets, including student support”. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8405680.stm

WHAT?  Hello?  We can afford to pay bankers but not scientists? Who needs medical research?  As long as there is enough cash in the banks our country is fine? Right?

I don’t work in University administration, but £600 million sounds like a lot of money to me.  Working in science is ALREADY tough,  getting money (grants) to fund your research is a never ending process.  I am a biologist, the government fund biology research through a grant awarding body called the BBSRC.  In 2008/09 only 21 % of applicants were funded (down from 28 % in 2005/06).  Now I’m sure the BBSRC will argue that they only fund “the best” and the other 79 % of grants just weren’t good enough, I honestly do NOT believe that.

Read this BBC news report and weep.  It made me angry, this quote in particular

But ministers point to a 25% real term increase in funding in higher education since 1997.

To my mind, it reads like this: Lazy lecturers have had 25 % more money in the past decade (far more than hard working people in the “real world”), now it’s time to cut back on this unnecessary waste.

Having worked in higher education for the past decade, I was somewhat aware that this “25 % increase” was not all it’s cracked up to be, when I started my degree a decade ago a 1st year intake of 80-100 students was considered large, now lecturers regularly have 200-500 first years.  This isn’t like school, there isn’t one lecturer per 30 students, there is one lecturer to 500 students.  Ever tried marking 500 exam scripts in a week?  Lecturers have an easy life? Right? You can get more info on the number of lecturers and researchers from the HEFCE website - Staff Employed at HEFCE funded HEI’s.

Anyway being a scientist, I realise that anecdotes are not data (see Science and Evidence Based Medicine Vs Complementary and Alternative Medicine for more of my views on this).  So what does the data show?

The Higher Education Statistics Agency collect data on the number of students at University in the UK.  You can download tables worth of excel data, showing how many students studied different subjects by year. So the bottom line?

  • In 1996-1997 there were 1.7 million students in the UK.
  • In 2007-2008 there were 2.3 million students in the UK

I am not a statistician and I am shockingly bad at maths, but I figure that’s an increase of about 500,000 over a 10 year period.  So, universities have had a 25 % increase in real term funding since 1997 have they?  But, wait a minute, they’ve also taken 25 % more students.  Why have the universities taken on more students?  Oh yes, because the government wanted them to.  It looks good in international league tables.

Anyway, now we need to bail out the banks and all this research, well it’s just a waste of money, right?  Lets cut back on those “wasteful” research grants and save money for important things, like shares and traders. Who wants new drugs and medical treatments (for cancer as well as other diseases)  as long as we’re all rich it doesn’t matter. Does it?

Am I being too cynical?  Feel free to leave your views below.

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