Making an impact

June 17, 2010

As the nervousness about the cuts-that-are-yet-to-come slowly builds, an interesting debate has been developing during the last week. First there was a Nature News article that argued that scientists should engage more fully with the “impact agenda”, but was sceptical about our ability to accurately or meaningfully quantify our impact. Quantification is an important issue : politicians know we have value for the economy, but how many pound notes do you attach to that value ? Then a big surprise, at least to me : two letters to the Times from a an impressive array of captains of industry, saying “for goodness sake don’t cut science”. Not a bunch of whinging academics note – genuine industrial chieftains. This was followed up by more Times letters the next day, and another well argued piece in the Guardian blog.

Of course, as usual, it is important to stress that just because science and technology gets a thumb up, doesn’t mean the government will pay for astronomy. Our problem is that our economic impact, while large, is mostly indirect  – delivering scientifically literate graduates, attracting kids into science, and inspiring the public. Like the rest of physics we can have a huge impact from producing basic advances in physics, like how nuclear reactions work. Understanding gravity came from worrying about the Moon. But these huge advances are slow to have an effect, and are a benefit to the world, not an advantage to UK PLC. Astronomy can produce technological spin off. Andy Fabian’s recent article for A&G, which you can download from Paul Crowther’s website, has some impressive examples. But its never going to quite be like chemistry or engineering.

Right .. slight digression followed by loop back.

Yesterday we had an excellent talk here from Marek Kukula about how to build a career in public engagement. Marek used to be a quasar researcher, but now he is the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich . Amongst other things he spoke a little of the history of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Why should the State create such a thing ? It was because accurate positions of the stars mattered for navigation. We are talking trade, war, and sailors’ lives. Not just handy spin off gadgets. Right in the core of the business of the state. We’ve lost that.

The last time that card was played was 1945. A few months back I was at a meeting at Heidelberg. Not as usual at MPI, but another astronomical institute in the centre of Heidelberg, the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut (ARI). In modern times it has been a centre of astrometry, producing the FK5 catalogue for instance. Historically, it was the equivalent of the RGO, producing star maps for  the state. But it used to be in Berlin. In 1945 as the Russians approached, the Director made an argument to the government that the ARI was of strategic military importance and should not be allowed to fall into Russian hands. So they were moved to Heidelberg. (Markus Demleitner told me this story on the way to dinner one night – I hope I have it roughly right).

I don’t think that gambit will work in Cameron’s world. But is there a replacement ? Killer rocks in space ? Planetary Defense League anyone ?

ps some of those newspaper links are behind a paywall and some aren’t…

pps  as an old fashioned chap, I still think that “impact” is a noun by the way, and not a verb. Still, as our American friends say, there is no noun that cannot be verbed.