Sunday, 10 October 2010

Science is Vital rally, which I went to.

Yesterday (at time of writing, 19:45pm on 10/10/10) was the Science is Vital rally in London, outside the treasury. I know, because I was there.

After a relatively last minute request from chief organiser Jenny Rohn, I agreed to make the trip (via that chariot of the impoverished and pathologically frugal, the Megabus) to London in order to do a 5 minutes (or less) comedy bit about science and its importance to the UK.

I agreed to do this despite the concern that it may end up that I'd have have travelled for around 4 hours to do some crap jokes to a few dozen desperate people people stood in the rain on a wet weekend afternoon. I hoped this wouldn't be the case, obviously, but as a proper scientist I had to consider it as a probable outcome.

Needn't have worried. Final reports said there were over 2000 present, I'm told.

The weather was also fine. From Bristol onwards, it was uniform white overcast, with zero wind. It was as if they'd cancelled weather for the day, just in case. That's more the domain of super villains that scientists, but there's less of a distinction between the two than most people realise.

It was a great day, and an excellent line up of speakers. And me as well. So that's nice. Here are some notable things that I witnessed.

- There were many journalists and media folk present. They all ignored me, despite my gratuitous blue lab coat, which suited me just fine (the ignoring, not the lab coat, although that does also suit me I reckon). Ergo, I was able to hang around backstage and overhear conversations. One organiser was collared by a reporter who so embodied the clich├ęd 'TV news reporter' look that I almost believed he was a robot. He was asking what people were and what it meant. E.g. "A Biochemist, what do they do?" The last thing I heard him say was 'Simon Singh. What is he?"
I've heard a lot of people complain that journalists don't understand or appreciate science stories, but to me that was just ridiculous. A 5 second Google search on the iPhone he was waving around between takes could have told him everything, but presumably he didn't see the point or the need.
He may have asked follow up questions, but I'd run off by this point lest he hear me guffawing at him. You'd think they'd send someone with some scientific awareness to cover a science-based protest about the science cuts called 'science is vital'. What's the media playing at? Someone should write them a letter...

- There was a woman in the front row, wearing an elaborate outfit, all pink scarf and flowery things

I'm not sure she was entirely well. She seemed to be acting as if the people speaking on stage were having a discussion with her. Whenever she heard something she had something to say about, she did so. Out loud. While the person on stage was still speaking. She seemed keen and enthusiastic, but this sort of thing is a bit distracting, and this atypical behaviour was quite fascinating. If you know her, or indeed ARE her, please get in touch, I'd love to know what you were saying, as I couldn't make out a word of it.

- During the day, I made the joke that the Science is Vital rally could be renamed 'Nuremberg for Nerds'. That, or 'Twitter: The Live Show'. Some people laughed, but almost everyone else was too busy to listen. Other people didn't really approve.
I've always tried to counteract the way many scientists are seen as insular, self-referencing and not good with people. This is, I feel, and unfair stereotype. But it is, I think, fair to say that scientists mostly talk to other scientists. The fact that scientists tend to ignore anything non-science related and don't engage with the real world was sort of what spurred the campaign in the first place. My joke about the nerd Nuremberg was a bit of a tongue in cheek prediction of what the Daily Mail would say about it if the rally proved to be a big media story. They like accusing scientists of being Nazis.
So, I was a bit surprised when Dr Mark Miodownik, an excellent speaker, got the whole crowd, 2000+ people, playing scissors-paper-stone

A lovely image for the assembled media to take home, I thought.

Now to my bit. Apparently, people liked it. Make your own conclusions, it's here. I spent a fair bit of time prepping it, I didn't want to let the side down. But, as it happens, I think I ballsed it up. I cracked my shin on the stage on the way up (the result of confusion as to who goes where with the legendary Doctor Evan Harris) so was a bit disorientated with that. I forgot some bits, I got a few bits out of order, I did an impromptu ad-lib about George Osborne which got waaaay bigger laughs than I was expecting (and that throws me, too much laughter, which is all you'll ever need to know about my comedic prowess), and at some point some guys got on stage behind me. I think they were camera men or tech guys keeping an eye on things, but in the comedy world, someone getting on stage behind you means you've overrun you're time hideously and they're there to hurl you off. Confusing clash of genres, so I duly got confused, rushed the end and left. I don't think I even did 5 minutes.

But still, nobody complained, and I'm my own worst critic so not sure how reliable my analysis is. Afterwards, I got asked to perform at Imperial College in the near future, and the also-legendary Simon Singh has been in touch about it (and it wasn't to lodge a harsh complaint, so that's nice).

It was a brilliant day, and awe-inspiring to be in the presence of what is essentially the real-world equivalent of the Illuminati. Not sure if the cuts will be affected by this, but from now on there can't be any political dismissal of the science community (but then, Politicians are renowned for acting in ways that are completely opposed to the logical course based on available evidence, so we'll see).

A massive congrats and kudos to all those involved in organising it, including Jenny, Evan Harris, Della, Michelle, Stephen, Richard and God knows how many others I have neglected to include. Follow them on Twitter to follow the saga. And please, if you follow me on Twitter and see me standing around somewhere like a lemon, don't hesitate to come and say hi; I'm a good conversationalist, I can just never think of how to start them. So I don't, and then it looks like I'm avoiding people. I'm not. Odds are, I'm probably bored so would appreciate meeting someone.

Sign the petition if you haven't. Write your MP if you haven't. Lobby Parliament this week.

And now, for those of you who care about such things, what follows is the talk I intended to do. Enjoy (or not, up to you).

Hello. Although it's incredible to see so many scientists and science supporters here today, it does make me worry, seeing as if a major disaster were to strike this location right now, it would cause a significant drop in the national average IQ. Amongst other things, obviously. It would probably be a lot quieter on twitter, for starters. There's the treasury as well, of course but let's not worry about that. It's not like there's anything in there these days.

Some of you may be wondering who am I to be stood here, amongst all the scientific illuminati. And I use the word illuminati as a joke, before any Dan Brown fans get too excited. Dan Brown isn't even a real person anyway, he's a spambot that got wildly out of control.

But what relevance do I, someone generally unknown, have to this campaign, exactly? Well, I’m not the head of a research group, an influential journalist or anything like that. I’m a doctor of Neuroscience, but I haven’t had a job for over a year now. Ergo, I’m an unemployed scientist. I try to scrape some extra cash together on the stand-up comedy circuit, and you know how desperate I am when comedy is seen as my fall-back option. So consider me a warning; if these cuts aren’t opposed here and now, you could all end up like me! And nobody wants that. This isn’t even a real lab coat; I’m stood here wearing this while my wife is at home wondering what happened to the bedroom curtains.

I’m not blaming my own situation on lack of funding. There are many reasons for me not finding work, chief among them being the fact that I did say I was a doctor of Neuroscience, but I’m not a particularly good one. But I know many people, highly qualified peers of mine who are brilliant and enthusiastic scientists, who are also struggling to find work, and to me that isn't right. If nothing else it's a waste of time and resources. All that training, all that potential, not being exploited, and that doesn't make economic sense to me. Say what you will about the government, but I sincerely doubt they'd voluntarily spend billions on something they had no intention of using. Apart from the trident missiles of course. Why do we need new ones, spray them a different colour etc., who's going to call our bluff?

I personally don't think anyone in the scientific community expected us to completely avoid being affected by the cuts; it's not like we're the banking industry. But I think we all hoped that any cuts made would be rational and well thought out, in order to minimise disruption. Not, as seems to be the case, Vince Cable pulling random numbers out of... well, an orifice of your choice, really. But maybe even that was naive? It might be just me, but I've detected a certain societal resentment of science and scientists. It might just be a resentment towards me, admittedly, but I'm often encountering hostility when I tell people what I do. And they've asked me, mind you. "What do you do?" "I'm a Neuroscientist", "OH! Think you're clever do you?" ".......YES! You sort of have to be in order to get to be one". Does anyone else get this sort of treatment? "I'm an Olympic sprinter" "OH! Think you're a fast runner, do you?" And so on.

Returning to the issue, you could say there is a certain logic in the argument that, in order to save money, we should only fund quality research. But that argument, that only quality should receive funding, is a bit hard to take from a government that recently declared that Homeopathy should be funded on the NHS because, apparently, choice is crucial.

I'm sure there are many critics who would say we're whinging, that we all have to face cuts and we shouldn't be exempt just because we're scientists. And maybe not every single bit of scientific research is absolutely vital to the UK's reputation and economy. I'm sure we'd concede that.

But if the technique of funding only quality is applied to science, the arguments justifying it mean it should be surely be applied to all other fields too. Transport: Only rail services that provide a reliable service should receive government funding; a saving of about 100% there. Politics? Maybe only those ministers that can prove they have a positive effect on their constituencies should receive pay? In fact, if quality is so important, maybe these sorts of decision should only be made by political parties that can obtain enough votes to form a majority government on their own? Banking even, surely only quality banks should receive public funds? I'm no economist, but it seems pretty easy to spot which banks are the quality ones; they're the ones that don't need public funding in order to keep being banks!

Science is also commanded to do more with less, effectively violating the laws of conservation of mass. But then, it seems the government is exempt from the laws of conservation of mass. They made nearly a trillion pounds disappear without a trace. Lord knows where it's gone, hopefully the Large Hadron Collider will find it in a few months. Unless they do something stupid like, I don't know, cut the funding.

I've been quite flippant in my brief time up here. That was kind of the point of me being here, if we're honest. But the point about the damage these science cuts could cause, which the other speakers have made far more eloquently than I ever could, remains very valid. But I'll leave you with this

A lot of people have cited the argument that other world leaders are pledging to increase scientific and research funding in response to the economic crisis. Now, I'll believe that when I see it, although far be it for me to not instinctively take politicians at their word. But I remember seeing the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, on TV a few months back, when first introducing the cuts, saying that he wants these cuts to be sustainable. Which I think is PR speak for "The banks have your money, and I don't see why they should have to return it". But this phrase worried me, because, as anyone with any medical or biology experience could tell you, a sustained cut, a cut that doesn't end, those can be fatal. Especially if made to a vital area of the body. Like science.

And on that semi-pithy observation, I'm off to Trafalgar Square to raise enough money to get home. Those Big Issues won't sell themselves.

E-mail: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy


Zeno said...

You were excellent - well worth the time you spent on the bus!

It was good to meet you.

Heather Doran said...

Great 'proposed' speech - I wish I could have been there to see the actual one! Especially the bit about different treatment between sprinters and scientists...

I like the way you use humour to get some serious points across. It makes the whole thing less 'bitter complaining scientists'.

@jaclong said...

Great written speech.
Wish I could have been there but even though I'm actually a scientist I'm currently working undercover for a bank so I had to stay away to protect my identity!
I'm planning to catch up with it all on pod delusion when I get a spare two hours, or a spare minute while travelling at 99.965% of light speed.
Oh, maybe I'll listen to it on my commute! (That'll be the 2 hour option then, not the super-high-speed version).
Hope your shin is feeling better.

sarirons said...

You were great. We'd seen you wandering around before kick off, I'm now regretting not engaging in conversation (my opener would most certainly have been lab coat compliment related). Heyho, maybe at the next geek uprising...

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