Brown, Science, and the Fruits of Curiosity

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The Royal Society is keen to move beyond outdated dichotomies between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, towards a richer understanding of how a vibrant and diverse research base creates value in many different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.

34 Responses to Brown, Science, and the Fruits of Curiosity

  1. Kav says:

    It was a nice speech. My strongest concern is that there have been mixed messages coming out of government, particularly from John Denham and Paul Drayson. The latter attempted to clear this up in the recent evidence before the IUSS committee but I am not sure he managed. That is well worth a listen (or read next week) by the way.

  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    I will steer clear of the joke, since I have an unfortunate track record of being misconstrued in that area, but I do have a comment on the substance of your post.

    Any politician capable of getting elected knows to say the kind of warm fuzzy things about blue-skies research that were said in the Romanes Lecture. But the PM is also remarkably explicit about what the Government’s view of blue-skies research actually comprises: research to “create the low carbon, high skill, digital economy that we need.” In other words, what we would probably call applied research.

    And if we hang hopes on the “high skill” part, we are deluding ourselves. Yes, we can train highly-skilled people, but presumably so can those engineers doing applied research into energy, security, the digital economy, etc, so why not get all the return by investing just in them and save a lot of money? Even trotting out how astronomy inspires people to do science in the first place is a self-defeating strategy, because it leads to the obvious next question of how much astronomy you have to fund to generate that return. My suspicion is that most politicians would conclude that it is considerably less than the current volume, since far from all the astronomy done in the UK captures the public imagination.

    At some point we have to stop trying to shoehorn what we are doing within the current parameter space, and try to win the wider social argument. Pure science may have many spin-off benefits in terms of training people and serendipitous revolutionary discoveries like the world-wide web, but fundamentally the reason that it should be funded is that acquiring knowledge of the Universe is one of the things that every advanced society in history has done. Like art and literature, it defines part of what it means to be civilized. As the particle physicist R.R. Wilson said when queried on the value of his research to the defence of the United States by a Congressional committee,

    it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

    I realize that trying to win such an abstract argumnt is an uphill battle, especially in the current climate, but it is at least an argument that we stand an outside chance of winning. If we keep simply “playing the game” with the rules as currently formulated, there is only one way that astronomy in this country will go.

  3. Marinkina says:

    То что бредомысли это точно 🙂
    Видно настиг творческий кризис. Мысле нет о чем писать 🙂

  4. andyxl says:

    Mike – the problem with the “civilised nation must do astronomy” argument is that, like the “long shots win big” argument, it doesn’t set a natural level of investment. But we do have to keep making both points.

    Whatever the correct natural level for astronomy, it is reasonable to make a gradient argument. Right now we tick boxes on being one of the world-competitive areas that Brown boasts of. I don’t believe Brown wants to pay for energy research by destroying that reputation.

  5. Kav says:

    No, but he might think that he can reduce the money and maintain that reputation. How much could it be reduced? How far behind are our competitors?

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    Well, there is at least one fairly objective (if somewhat self-referential) measure of what the natural level of investment is to be considered a civilized nation — it should be comparable to what our civilized competitors in the rest of Europe and the USA invest in astronomy as a fraction of GDP. Do you know how we stack up?

  7. Kav says:

    I know STP funding as a fraction of GDP (0.5% compared with USA 7.2%) but not astronomy.

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    That can’t be right — Obama has pledged to raise the entire US science budget to 3% of GDP, so can’t be spending 7.2% of GDP on STP. Maybe you are thinking of the fraction of the science budget?

  9. Kav says:

    published prematurely there, sorry. My mistake, the numbers were actually parts per 100,000. Doh!

  10. Ken Rice says:

    I do like the positive tone of this post and I hope it is essentially correct and that it is ultimately up to us to convince the powers that be that Astronomy and other fundamental sciences has value (although, as with Mike, I am worried about what will happen if we try to “play the game”). What concerns me, however, is the possibility that the last paragraph of the post is overly optimistic and that the upper reaches of government is actually dominated by those who want nice simple measures of the value of science and that we will suffer as a result, irrespective of how well we “make our pitch”.

  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    The other questions that one needs to consider is to whom we make such a pitch, and who makes it.

    Since any bid against a future spending round has to work its way up from STFC through RCUK to DIUS and ultimately the Treasury, STFC are the obvious body to lobby. But we have to be aware of the reality that the management of STFC needs to be seen to back “winners” in any bid, since that is the way that they enhance the reputation of their organization with Government as well as their budget, which are their metrics of success. They are therefore very unlikely to headline an astronomy bid if the steer from the politicians above is to emphasize applied science. So, one really needs to make the case directly to the politicians (probably Conservative ones at this point, though the way Parliament is going at the moment maybe it should be UKIP!), but also directly to the public since on cultural issues like this political policy is to a large extent driven by public opinion.

    So who then makes the case? It has to be coordinated and authoritative, so that would suggest that it has to come from our professional bodies, the RAS and the IoP. I believe that the current president of the RAS has had a number of meetings with politicians of all political persuasions, which is certainly a positive development, but where is the coordinated high-profile campaign? Why aren’t they taking a leaf out of the American Astronomical Society’s book and calling on the community to lobby their local politicans? Where are the series of press releases highlighting current successes and the threat that there will be no more?

    As the Gemini debacle showed, there is always the danger of a backlash against pure science if things aren’t handled very carefully (there was a letter in a national newspaper suggesting that the only mouths fed by astronomical research are those of the children of astronomers), but if the issue isn’t out there then we definitely will not win the argument. And now we have a new angle that we shouldn’t shy away from: if public money is going to be spent, would you rather it went on baling out incompetent bankers and buying floating duck islands for politicians, or would you rather it were invested in understanding the mysteries of the Universe?

    • Paul Crowther says:


      Our Particle Physics cousins have done exactly what you are arguing for in a new Particle physics – It Matters report from the IOP (including financial support from STFC!). Space science is probably safe with Paul Drayson at the helm, but (ground-based) astro risks being left outside in the cold.

  12. andyxl says:

    For optimism : The very highest reaches of government do understand the point; and its the international year of astronomy for goodness sake…. For pessimism : its not clear what they will do in practice, because they have to be seen to taking explicit actions; and there intermediate layers who are hostile.

    It is absolutely not true that astronomy funding feeds only astronomer’s children. We are capital intensive and a large fraction of funding goes back to industrial contracts. This is why the ESA subscription in particular is seen as good.

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    That’s also a very risky line to go down, Andy, as we really don’t want to end up in a situation where decisions on astronomy funding are driven by considerations of juste retour rather than scientific merit.

    Surely, the better answer is that every child who has ever said “wow” when told some bizarre fact about the Universe has been nourished.

    Good grief, that sounded pretentious, but you know what I mean.

  14. Iain Steele says:

    I’m afraid I am pessimistic.

    Brown’s speech was made on Feb 27th and I believe was preparing the ground for a big budget announcement on science funding. Unfortunately on 24th March Mervyn King (Bank Of England) said “no more money” and I suspect that was the end of it.

  15. Kav says:

    Sadly I tend to agree with Iain. Brown did say nice things, very encouraging, then rumours came swirling around about uplifts (even if targeted) and then Mr King spoke and his timing could not have been worse.

    My original cynicism told me that if it had been additional spending on financial institutions his advice might have been different, but on reflection that was probably a bit unkind.

  16. andyxl says:

    I guess this all makes sense, as indeed there was not a big hike at budget time. However my real point remains : GB and key advisers are not anti pure science.

    W.r.t. Mike’s worries : obviously we have to make both arguments. But it would be a big mistake not to correct the belief some people have that astro funding only pays useless astronomers. We are high-tech customers.

  17. Michael Merrifield says:

    It’s just a question of emphasis, Andy: if we lead with economics and follow with culture, we will always lose out to science with more obvious economic returns; if we say that the fundamental reason to do astronomy is cultural, but that it happens to pay for itself in terms of economic returns, then we are a least in with a chance.

  18. andyxl says:

    I hve finally looked at the PP report and it is indeed very good. It seems to have emerged from both IOP and STFC, so the lack of an astronomy version is bad. Should we lean on IOP, or call up the RAS, or what ? This is really needed.

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    Not sure now, Andy — on reflection, won’t we just look a bit silly playing catch-up with a “yeah, us too” glossy brochure at this point?

    As for calling up the RAS, they have been resisting suggestions that such a piece of work be commissioned for at least the last three years, so it seems unlikely that they would be able to figure out how the door works even now that the horse has bolted.

  20. Tony says:

    Playing catch-up is better than being left behind.

  21. Michael Merrifield says:

    Not necessarily Tony — it can just serve to underline the fact that you are second best, when keeping quiet would at least have left the question open.

  22. Kav says:

    I believe that the RAS has been co-sponsoring an Economic Impact Study with the IoP, STFC and EPSRC. I think this aims to be more quantitatively driven than the document from PP. According to RAS council minutes it seems to have been ongoing since late last year.

  23. Colin Cunningham says:

    We just had a talk from Keith Mason here at the UK ATC. He showed a ppt including the PP glossy, and said that the ground-based astro community has not got is act together, and we should press the RAS to produce a similar initiative – emphasising ‘impact’ in all its aspects. Anybody want to start a campaign to get this to happen – sounds like even if it is catch-up, it is seen to be important!

  24. Rob Ivison says:

    As Kav has said, the RAS is co-sponsoring an EI study, but it will be for astronomy as a whole rather than specifically ground-based astronomy, the latter being where Keith Mason thinks there is a problem. He stated today that the “case for space” has been made, and was effusive about the “Particle Physics – it Matters” IoP/STFC brochure, particularly about the fact that the PP community produced the document off their own bat.

    Listening to Keith Mason brought home how important the “impact” issue has become (and not just because Keith Mason, CEO of STFC, believes it to be important, though that would be reason enough to get ours arses in gear). If the UK ground-based community wants to remain healthy, it needs to gather the evidence required to show that the country’s economy is better with us than without us. We need to act and we should do so in time to hand the next science minister a convincing “astronomy manifesto”, concentrating on the ground-based facilities (since the case for space is manifest – even if that largely means “keeping space industry alive”) particularly on the economic benefits of E-ELT and SKA.

  25. Kav says:

    Keith says that the ‘case for space’ has been made but I’m not sure that is true (is that his natural bias showing?). I think that the government (or at least the science minister) sees the worth of space exploration, I am not sure that necessarily includes space-based astronomy. The PP guys have been exceptionally well organized since almost day one; I think they recognised the problems long before some in the astronomy community did. The document they produced is very nice, (succinct, eye catching and informative), but does it actually tick the boxes the government wants ticked in making the case? As a colleague of mine asked, is there enough quantitative information to please the treasury, particularly with regard to how much impact from CERN is in the UK?
    Just to be clear – I think that the PP guys can make a compelling case about the impact of their work, I’m just not sure that this document (good as it is) actually does it.
    If the ground based astronomy community wishes to produce a similar document alongside the ongoing more substantive study I assume that they can get the STFC to match whatever funding they provided the PP folks.

  26. Rob Ivison says:

    You’d like to think so. Ditto the RAS. That’d get us some glossies and perhaps allow us to hire Nina Hall for a month or so, but what we really need is a team blending the outreach savvy of Haley Gomez with the EI/KE nous of Colin Cunningham. Sadly, both are stupendously busy… if only we could clone them. Andy, have we got anything on those Dolly folk down the road?

  27. Kav says:

    Farewell DIUS, we only knew you for such a short time. Goodbye John Denham, I hope that your new stakeholder in Communities are less troublesome and shouty than the previous lot.

    As science and universities are folded into business and enterprise I think the only thing left to say is:

    I for one welcome our new lizard overlord…

  28. andyxl says:

    For those who have no idea what Kav is talking about, see this link.

  29. Tony says:

    Nuts. Clicked on Andy’s link expecting to find explanation of ‘lizard overlord’. Best I could find on Google was .

    • andyxl says:

      I took Lizard Overlord to be a Doctor Who reference. I can’t remember a specific episode, but I am sure there are lots where a vaguely lizard-like alien, despite having the entire Galaxy to roam around, lands somewhere near Battersea to take over Planet Earth, and announces his intention to half a dozen puzzled locals.

  30. Kav says:

    It’s from a Simpson’s episode (see here). Lizard just seemed appropriate for the new man at the top.

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