I’ve signed the Science is Vital petition and clearly agree with the view that if the cuts are of the magnitude that people expect, the damage done to UK science could be extreme and irreversible. I’m, however, finding it quite difficult to really get behind this fight, largely because I’m not particularly comfortable with what this argument implies. The government wants to cut the total public budget by something like 10-20%. Their reason for doing this is that they want to reduce the structural deficit, essentially the amount of money the government has to borrow, annually, to balance its books even when the economy is performing optimally.
Although I do believe that cutting the science budget would be disastrous, if one assumes that the cuts are inevitable and we don’t want the science budget to be cut, what gets cut in its place. As far as I’m aware, health and education (although not Higher Education) are ring-fenced. Ultimately, reducing (or getting rid of entirely) the structural deficit is a perfectly sensible thing to do. We can’t expect to simply borrow money indefinitely. However, trying to do so on the timescale proposed by the government may be the problem. Admittedly, annual borrowing is currently something like 10% of GDP, so we are increasing our debt by a substantial amount every year. However, our total debt is still not particularly large. It is similar to, if not smaller than, many other comparable countries.
Allowing the debt to grow for the next few years is not obviously the wrong thing to do. Although slashing public sector budgets may also not be obviously wrong from an economic perspective, it will clearly have a very serious effect on some sectors of our society and if we can’t protect the most vulnerable in our society, then we have some very questionable ethical standards. What is more, I suspect that the impact of the proposed cuts will be very hard to predict. When scientists try to understand the evolution of a system, a very common approach is to perform a linear analysis. If you assume the perturbation is small, the equations often become analytically solvable. If, however, the perturbations are large the system becomes non-linear and understanding its evolution becomes very difficult. Computer models can deal with such systems, but predictions based on the simple linear analysis become largely useless.
Strictly speaking the cuts aren’t effectively non-linear, but the consequences of such a large perturbation must be virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. I certainly feel that cuts of this magnitude will be damaging for the country as a whole and that even if we can protect the science budget, the damage done to some other sectors of our society may make protecting the science budget all a little pointless. I think we, as academics, should be making strong arguments as to why cuts of this magnitude are too unpredictable to be worth considering. Growing our debt in a managed way and aiming to reduce the structural deficit over a longer time period will be much safer and result in more long term stability. Included in this are decisions about the size of the public sector and how to get the required revenue, but this will be much easier to do if the economy is reasonably stable than if it is highly perturbed and uncertain.