Getting cosy: Nurse and Osborne smile for the camera

Sir Paul Nurse with George Osborne at the BBC. Photograph: BBC News

Since the coalition took power in 2010, George Osborne has not exactly been the most popular man in Britain. He has attracted criticism from members of all parties in the Commons, been decried by economists and was even booed at the Paralympic Games. Yet despite his widespread unpopularity, team Osborne have successfully courted at least one group over the past few years: the science lobby.

In December, Osborne announced a £21.5m investment aimed at taking graphene research ‘from the British laboratory to the British factory floor’. This investment contains no new government funding; Osborne is simply specifying the details of previously announced funding commitments. Yet the announcement was extraordinarily well-received by influential figures from the science lobby. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, gave the announcement favourable comments in The Guardian and was none too critical when interviewing Osborne on the Today programme. Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), described the news as ‘incredibly positive’.

“I think scientists often pride themselves on not being ideological; they are pragmatic, driven by evidence and very practical. Some people say the Prime Minister and yourself are pretty pragmatic rather than ideological, do you think you’re really a scientist in disguise doing politics?” – Sir Paul Nurse interviews George Osborne on the Today programme 

Whether or not Nurse and Khan can speak for the scientific community at large is up for debate, but none could deny that the Royal Society and CaSE are influential institutions. Their responses to the graphene announcement are just one example of a changing attitude towards coalition policies, which I have been following with interest.

If we look back to September 2010, before the Spending Review was announced, Khan was highly critical of a speech on science funding by Vince Cable: ‘Dr. Cable had nothing exciting or inspiring to say about government policy in this area’. As the review approached in October, CaSE teamed up with Science is Vital (slogan: ‘No more Dr Nice Guy!’) to protest outside the Treasury. Khan warned of ‘catastrophic collapse in our science and engineering base’, and compared UK science spending unfavourably with those of other countries.

When the science spending ‘freeze’ (real-terms cut of 10%) was actually announced, we saw hesitant acceptance from the science lobby. A Royal Society report described the situation as ‘bearable’, while Khan described it as a ‘significant cut’ and warned that the UK would ‘struggle to retain’ young scientists. A subsequent article on the CaSE website tentatively concluded that science and engineering ‘escaped severe cuts’ but were in for ‘tricky times ahead’.

Skipping ahead to October 2011, when the £50m graphene funding was first announced, Khan ‘applauded’ the decision to ‘invest intelligently’ but was keen to point out that the investment came ‘in the wake of enormous cuts to the nation’s science and engineering base.’ A month later, Osborne set aside £200m for research infrastructure in the autumn statement. In response, Khan said: ‘It’s really encouraging for the U.K. economy that last year’s cuts are being slowly reversed.’ Nurse described the announcement as ‘good news’, but cautioned that it ‘must be the start of that additional investment rather than just a one off.’

As 2012 draws to a close, we see a marked difference in the relationship between Osborne and the science lobby. Paying lip service to science at the Royal Society in November can’t have harmed Osborne’s reputation in scientific circles, and he went on to announce a £600m investment in science in December’s autumn statement. In an article on the CaSE website headlined ‘CaSE backs Osborne’s science ambition’, Khan is quoted saying: ‘We applaud the Chancellor for supporting not only fundamental research, but also making science a bigger part of the UK’s industrial strategy.’ Unlike the 2011 response, this article made no mention of the Spending Review cuts which will be in effect until 2014-15. Nurse’s response was similarly positive, although he did include a caveat regarding Osborne’s focus on specific areas of science: ‘We must not narrow our focus too much and risk sacrificing the ideas that will create growth decades from now.’

Compared with responses in previous years, recent statements from Nurse and Khan are almost suspiciously uncritical.  Has Osborne simply been unquestionably good for science? This seems unlikely. Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, pointed out earlier this month that what Osborne ‘actually announced was the return of just some of the budget that he cut from the science capital spending.’ Onwurah’s article is well worth a read for anyone interested in science funding, and she articulates many problems with Osborne’s approach far better than I could. So as Osborne takes from the science budget with one hand and gives with the other, why do we have key science lobbyists thanking him with few reservations?

In late October 2012, CaSE and Nesta launched the 4Growth campaign, asking for the ~£4bn proceeds from the auction of the 4G spectrum to be invested into science and innovation. Khan’s stake in the campaign is clear, and 4Growth’s list of supporters includes Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society. There may be a feeling that one catches more Chancellors with honey than vinegar…