Science in 2011: I’ve got good news, and bad news…. (Technorati Article)

Article first published as Science in 2011: I’ve Got Good News, and Bad News…. on Technorati.
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Even though higher education and universities in the UK are facing huge spending cuts, most of which will have to be passed on to future generations of students, the news for science in the coming years may not be all bad.
Granted, students who begin a course at any one of England’s universities during the 2012/13 academic year will bear the full brunt of these austerity measures when they fork out an extra £5000-a-year for tuition fees, an increase of about 150% on the fees of the previous cohort of students. The measures were passed earlier this year by the House of Commons (and later by the Lords) and were greeted by mass outcry, violent protest and fervent disapproval from students, university chiefs and union members. Whilst it is too early to tell if enrolment will be affected, what seems apparent is that the cuts to government funding of universities will be felt hardest in departments focussing on social science and the arts. Continued lobbying, protest and petitioning of the government seems futile now. The cries of a 250,000-strong protest against the cuts that took place in London on the 26th of March seems to have fallen on deaf or indifferent ears, perhaps plugged with a sense of unyielding stoicism or steadfast determination in their belief that these cuts are right, necessary and fair.
However, the news is not all doom and gloom. The recent UK budget outlined an extra £100 million for science institutions focussing on space science and physics across the country, and the recent inception of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) will hopefully usher in a new era of space science innovation whilst ensuring that the UK remains a world-leader in high-technology research. However, this investment is still relatively meagre, at £240 million-a-year, in comparison to other leading European countries. France, for example, has recently announced an investment of £440 million in its domestic space industry.
In other news, the British Isles will soon be the proud operator and home to the world’s largest radio telescope array – the Square Kilometre Array or SKA – the headquarters of which will be opened in 2012 at Jodrell Bank in Chesire. The project will be completed at the cost of a cool £1.2 billion. The SKA is considered an international ‘mega-science’ project and operates via the collaboration of partner observatories in 20 countries across the world. It is hoped the SKA will shed some light, or radio waves, on the birth of galaxies and planets and also contribute to the search for extraterrestrial civilisations.

However, a recent report by the Royal Society reports that the UK may have already slipped to third place in terms of citations of original scientific research, behind the US in first, and lagging tiredly in the wake of the extraordinary explosion of scientific output by China. This is an admittedly crude metric for measuring quality research output but worrying news none the less. Hopefully this report will serve as a reminder to the current coalition government on the importance of maintaining a well funded, competitive research and development industry in the future.

Conversely, the report may also point to a change in the nature of research, from a mainly national vocation to a more international and cosmopolitan affair. Other developing countries like Brazil, India and South Korea are increasing their research output, and a positive trend in the proportion of the world’s papers produced with more than one international author is becoming increasingly evident. Personally, I see the increasing internationalisation of science as a positive step towards an integrated global scientific community, drawing on the personal cultural perspectives of its members in an attempt to further the entirety of our collective understanding of our world and the universe in which we live.

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