BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Astronomers must make own case So are we going to fund science or not?
The main thrust of Gordon Brown’s argument on embryology is that if we do not pass controversial legislation, then the UK will be left behind as other countries move ahead. But, at the same time, his government is busy starving primary research in fields which are entirely legal and create no ethical dilemmas.
From the 1940s until the 1970s (or so I’m told, as I wasn’t there), the British attitude to scientific research was that it was a good thing, and the government should back it. Just here in the Midlands we saw the invention of Radar, the microwave, the heart pacemaker and holography. British universities could count on — if not funding royale — the solid support of government. But from the 1980s (remember who was in power?) Britain began to tighten its belt. Research grants suffered. Student loans were brought in as a cheaper alternative to full grants. In the 1990s universities continued to be squeezed, until Blair came in with ‘Education, Education and Education’. However, his vision was not greater depth, but greater breadth. Vastly more people would go to university, but they would pay tuition fees for it. Meanwhile, Britain continued to innovate, and many British inventions were then taken up overseas, for want of British backing.
We can point to a number of successes. Clive Sinclair’s ZX80 home computer and Electric Car. Dyson’s cyclone vacuum cleaner. Trevor Baylis’s amazing clockwork radio. But innovators and inventors consistently claim that Britain does not value them.
Blair’s government did not have a policy on science and technology, and Brown’s does not have one either. It may make complete economic sense to prepare Britain to be the heartland of embryology, but it makes no sense to starve astronomy and other disciplines while doing so. Of course, it can be argued that embryology is a science with a direct economic benefit over the next ten years. Brown may argue that if he wishes, but in advancing that argument he will demonstrate his utter lack of understanding of the nature of scientific research. The programme par excellence which demonstrated the spin-off benefits of ‘irrelevant’ research was NASA’s programme to reach the moon. Nobody has ever found anything on the moon worth bringing back. But everyone acknowledges that the spin-off benefits of NASA’s work have been immense and far-reaching.
It’s all very well telling astronomers that they have to make their own case. But the kinds of people who are good at primary scientific research are not necessarily the people who are good at making the case for funding. This has become more than apparent in other areas, such as the arts, where ability to make ones case is the primary means by which one gains funding. There is a small industry of lottery-award consultants which has grown up around the self-awareness of artists that being good at something and being able to sell it are not the same thing at all.
There is a group of people who are good at making the case for things, and who are paid to have a broad view and a generous understanding of what is important and why. These people are not scientists but politicians. For politicians, through their civil servants and arms-length organisations, to tell scientists they must make their own case is both ironic and dysfunctional. Britain needs a future in the sciences, and investment in primary research is something which has paid our nation dividends for the last four hundred years — from the chronometer to the steam engine, and from calculus to penicillin and on to the discovery of DNA.
Does Britain need the ethically dubious honour of being the easiest country in the West to conduct embryology experiments? That is a matter for debate, and, we have finally agreed, for a free vote in the House of Commons. Does it need a science policy which is more than a starvation diet? Absolutely, and without doubt.
Gordon Brown, get your act together.