Stay broad in science, but focus the exploitation.

I have another piece in the New Scientists S-Word blog today, discussing Lord Drayson’s recent speech on science and economic return.

My comments are intended constructively from the point of view of a committed scientist who believes that science is not only amazingly fun & inspiring, but also useful. If you’ve read the S-Word piece and still have the appetite, here are some other thoughts which aren’t the main point I wanted to make there, but may be worth thinking about.

The minister says:

This evening, I intend to be more emphatic than I have been previously about the path this country must pursue on science. And I’ll insist – not for the first time – that certain questions which continue to preoccupy some UK scientists are a distraction from what ultimately matters to all of us.

We’d better listen. Personally as a scientist whose work is funded by STFC, I have been very distracted by trying to defend any kind of future for my work or the students, postdocs and engineers who work with me. At least the LHC is working now, even if fewer UK PhD students and postdocs will benefit and one LHC experiment (ALICE) is subject to “managed withdrawal” thanks to the STFC mess…

… anyway. He goes on to praise UK science, and to laud the investment the government has made since 1997. This investment was real and did repair the damage done by previous years of neglect. However, it did not raise UK investment in research to the level of our major competitors.

I say to you tonight that UK science doesn’t need fixing. It needs continued investment and a stable framework so that scientists are able to get on with what they do best: excellent research.

Actually we did have some kind of stable framework until 2007 when the STFC was created & starved of funds. Lord Drayson knows this and has said he will fix that. If he does, he is a hero and we can indeed move on to the agenda he is keen on. Which is clearly to improve the direct economic benefit the UK derives from its science base.

The problem remains that our capacity to create wealth from science needs to improve – to deliver the strong economic growth and jobs.

He is absolutely right here;

My single-word answer to growth is “science”. We are number one or two globally in more disciplines than I have time to list. This is our ready resource.

and here;

Science isn’t peripheral to the decision facing the country. It is central: to growth, to prosperity and well-being.

in fact it is brilliant to hear such strong, clear articulation from a senior government politician. I think from this point on my only difference from Lord Drayson can possibly be about means rather than ends.

We have to rise above the simplistic notion – repeatedly advanced by a small but vocal minority – that pure and applied science are in conflict; the notion that they come from the same pot of money, so that any increase in applied research requires a cut to pure.

Personally I just hate the very terms “pure” and “applied” used in this sense, but let’s interpret it as the difference between scientific research designed to find out how things work, and scientific research designed to solve a particular problem for a known application. Even there there is a huge overlap. Many scientists do both, perhaps at different stages in their career. Many of us also teach and supervise  people who do, or go on to do, both.

We need to stop portraying pure and applied as mutually exclusive or different in moral terms – where pure science is somehow a more noble or disinterested pursuit than applied.

It is tragic that Lord Drayson has received this impression from anyone. It is total nonsense, and from a moral standpoint, applying your intellect to solve a particular problem is arguably more defensible that pursuing hunches about how life, the universe and everything might work simply for curiosity’s sake.

However, as I said in the S-Word, focusing science onto areas of commercial application (energy, climate change, security…) is not, in my view the right approach. We are not smart enough to pick winners this way in science (we being university scientists/managers like me, politicians or civil servants. People, basically).

We should let the research flow where the most interesting questions are, be ever-ready to exploit the commercial potential when it arises.

“Pure” science is not just a grand quest to find out how life, the universe and everything works, it also pushes technology at least as much as it pushes science. And please don’t think I am using “pure” as code for particle physics. I am also talking about understanding for example how life works, or the Earth works, or any number of basic and inspiring questions about the universe in which we find ourselves. Which, let me reiterate, are not inherently separable from the rest of science.

Where the UK often fails, as I said in the S-Word, is in the economic follow-up. That needs fixing, without breaking the great science. I think Lord Drayson would agree with that principle, but some of his plans, and some of the reality on the ground, undermine his purpose. He finishes:

Thanks for listening. I now welcome your questions and comments.

Lord Drayson, thanks for talking. There are my comments.

Note added 6 March

Lord Drayson responded very positively to my S-Word piece here. For the record, yes CERN has, as Lord Drayson states, had an “industrial liaison officer to help UK companies bid for CERN contracts, and serve as a contact point for CERN procurement staff, for over 14 years”. But at the time of writing the post has been vacant for quite a while and I am still not sure when it will have been filled. The role is currently being covered by other STFC staff. And even when filled, the post was not based at CERN. Some view this as a less effective effort than other member states, although though one might argue that being based in the UK, where the industries are, is better.

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics Prof working on LHC, dad, dodgy guitarist, Man City fan in exile.
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3 Responses to Stay broad in science, but focus the exploitation.

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  2. Andrew Reeve says:

    I don’t work in science, but ever since I was a young child and now into my early thirties, I’ve admired the determination and brilliance science and scientists provide. Science is a necessity not a luxury. In my spare (!?!!) time, I try to keep up to date and get people to support the ‘Science needs you’ facebook group. sadly, it seems, people are more concerned with celebrities. I struggle to comprehend the notion that science needs to make cuts. If it does, no-one benefits.

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