Brown, Science, and the Fruits of Curiosity

May 21, 2009

The Royal Society is running an inquiry called “The Fruits of Curiosity : science, innovation, and future sources of wealth”. They are calling for views : see this flyer. You can respond directly, but as usual the IOP is collating a response. I don’t know if the RAS is organising anything.

Disturbingly, the distributed file is called “Fruits Call for Views”. There’s a joke somewhere in there about science and the pink pound or something like that, but I can’t quite crystallise it. Hey Ho.

But seriously folks : there are some encouraging words in this flyer. It says

The Royal Society is keen to move beyond outdated dichotomies between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, towards a richer understanding of how a vibrant and diverse research base creates value in many different ways; through the supply of skilled individuals; through contributions to wealth creation and quality of life; or through simply discovering more about the world we live in.

Some of that is a bit warm and mushy, but it also suggests an opportunity to try to make the case that even apparently pure science makes wealth in the long term – what good ole PPARC used to call “strategic investment”. So go to it and have your say. By June 5th.

But the really interesting thing is that the flyer refers to a very significant speech by the Prime Minister which I hadn’t been aware of – the Romanes Lecture, in Oxford, Feb 27th. The transcript is on the number ten website.

Read it.

It is an articulate, coherent, and right-minded speech. It is very careful to include pure science, mentions Tim Berners Lee twice, and boasts about the British discovery of extrasolar planets. There are some excellent quotes. How about this :

But at this defining moment in the modern-day history of the British economy, is it not time to reconsider how to refocus our intellectual resources to reflect better the goals of our society. And to move away from an economy centred so heavily on financial services – and on finding ever more arcane ways to price complex derivatives – to one that is broader-based with a new focus on science and innovation.

Thats not just the usual cheap purple stuff. It’s pretty damned concrete. Or how about this :

…today the UK is second in the world only to America on the majority of leading scientific indicators and our science is the most productive and efficient in the G8. And I believe a vital ingredient of our success is that UK scientists remain amongst the most outward looking and globally connected. With just 1 per cent of the world’s population, the UK undertakes five per cent of the world’s science and produces nine per cent of the world’s papers. And of the UK’s foreign-born adult population – around one-fifth are scientists, with over half of them originally from Asia – in particular from countries like China and India. This is where we are. The question now is how we build on this strength to make Britain the best country in the world in which to be a scientist in the months and years to come.

If there is a more worrying part its this :

This does not mean compromising on fundamental research. But it will, as John Denham has said, mean working with scientists and those funding research to both identify potential priorities and then ensure that the research base works as much as possible to support them.

But thats not unreasonable. We just have to make sure that the Government understands different timescales of return on investment. But as I already mentioned, Tim Berners Lee is mentioned twice – so they know the point. One more quote :

So we will invest more than at any time in our country’s history, to make the next decade a decade where British scientific genius can create the low carbon, high skill, digital economy that we need.

Of course, it is possible that GB is lying through his teeth and the money won’t turn up. But I don’t think so. (Yes I know he is doing the usual trick of announcing money that was already announced in the ten year investment framework thingy… but the question is precisely whether that promised investment holds up during the recession.) It is also possible that the plugs for pure science are just keeping us quiet while the axe falls. But again I don’t think so. Its up to us to make the case.

Bottom line. If Astronomy suffers, it won’t be because the upper reaches of the Government is composed of barbarians, or because they take a too simple minded view of science and technology. It will be because we haven’t made our pitch right.