Dear Mr Lamb
I write as one of your constituents concerned with the impact of coalition cuts on science in Britain. I also write as a long-serving (23 years) Senior Editor of Nature, the world's leading professional science journal, and so in a position to assess the effects of cuts on science in Britain and elsewhere in the world. (I should stress that my writing of this letter is in a personal capacity).
You will have been aware of the comments made by your colleague Mr Vince Cable, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, concerning funding prospects for scientific research in Britain in the current period of economic hardship. These comments have caused consternation in the science community and led directly to the formation of the pressure group 'Science is Vital'; the tabling of an Early Day Motion (EDM 767 Science is Vital); a petition that now carries more than 7,000 signatures; and a lobby in Parliament (12 October, 15.30, Committee Room 10).
I understand that cuts - severe ones - will have to be made in many areas. However, cutting science is, and always will be, a counter-productive measure. Many other countries, such as the United States, are taking steps to increase public support for science, rather than decreasing it, because the dividends that science accrues over the long term far outweigh the investments, however high these might seem in the short term. Over the past few centuries, it is to science, more than to anything else, that we owe our current prosperity, longevity and health. Science touches every aspect of all our lives in fundamental ways. You might say that such a long-term outlook is hardly relevant to the current constraints on the public purse. I'd counter this, however, by saying that attitudes in government over the short term have effects that last for generations (I have seen this in my term at Nature), and that science requires long-term, sustained support from government for it to make a positive impact on our national life. The term 'sustained' might not appeal to parliamentarians - except for the fact that the costs of science are outweighed by the benefits as is a walnut to a whale.
One of Mr Cable's comments that has caused especial alarm is the one in which he suggests that funding in science should be concentrated on those aspects that seem of immediate benefit. The problem is that many scientific innovations come from the chance observations by scientists working on other things. Penicillin and X-rays are two obvious examples, but as an editor of Nature who sees around 700 new reserch papers each year, I am aware that most, if not all important scientific discoveries come from research programmes directed, ostensibly, elsewhere. Who could have predicted that the somewhat esoteric discovery of the structure of DNA, reported in Nature in a brief note in 1953, would have had such far reaching consequences in all aspects of basic science, medicine and technology? One could say the same for the discovery of the laser and the transistor and many other things. The point is that 'blue skies' research has as much chance of yielding enormous economic benefits as science that is ostensibly goal-directed.
As an MP in Norfolk with special interests in health you will of course not need reminding of the immense investments made in and economic importance of world-class research facilities close to home - in the University of East Anglia, the John Innes Institute, the Institute of Food Research and their several associated institutes. Cuts threaten the investments already made (including the training of researchers) and the future prosperity of Norfolk, Britain and the world.
I hope that you will sign the EDM, the petition and come to the rally. I regret that I cannot attend, but I am known personally by several of the instigators of the Science is Vital campaign.
4 weeks ago