Monday, October 11, 2010

Up To A Point, Prime Minister

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA

12 October 2010

Dear Sir

re: Proposed cuts in science funding

I should like to offer belated congratulations on winning the General Election. I am a member of the Conservative Party and a keen campaigner, and I read your emails and those of Baroness Warsi and your other colleagues with enthusiasm. Although our candidate in North Norfolk, Mr Trevor Ivory, didn’t win (the incumbent, Mr Norman Lamb, being both established and popular) I have no regrets for the shoe leather I expended  while leafleting, nor the evenings and weekends spent stuffing envelopes for our local HQ, given that we now have a government that can at least start to repair the damage inflicted by the previous administration’s many years of fiscal mismanagement.

I write, however, on another matter, and perhaps with another hat on, and that is to urge you and your government to accord science and technology a high priority as you seek to make cuts to our public expenditure.

I understand that the public purse is thin, and that we have an immense and unsustainable burden of debt, incurred by the feckless policies of the previous administration. We should, however, be doing more than just cutting, but seeking to invest in our long-term future as a competitive nation. This is why I was distressed to hear the recent speech by your colleague Mr Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, to the effect that our scientists should do ‘more with less’ and that we could only afford to fund areas that looked as if they might yield dividends in the short term.

At this stage I should perhaps declare an interest. I read Zoology and Genetics at the University of Leeds and hold a Ph. D. in Zoology from the University of Cambridge. On completion of my doctorate I joined the editorial staff of Nature, the world’s leading professional journal of science. This December I shall have been there for 23 years, and I am now a Senior Editor in the Biological Sciences department. From my position I get to see a lot of science, and a lot of scientists both from Britain and elsewhere, so I am in a fairly good position to judge the state of play.

Our scientists already do ‘more with less’ - far more than any other country on Earth. We spend less on science as a proportion of GDP than any other developed nation except Italy. It is a startling fact that the sum UK bankers wish to award themselves in bonuses this year (£7bn) is more than double the entire UK science budget (£3.2bn). I am not sure whether this says more about bankers’ bonuses or about the science budget, but it is perhaps a useful perspective. Scientists get by on so little, that the ‘points’ system for immigration discriminates against those who wish to come to Britain to study for a doctorate, the doctorate stipend being very low.

Why do people wish to come to study science in Britain? Because our science is first rate, as it has been for more than 150 years. It is no accident that Nature, established in 1869 and still owned by the MacMillan family, still has a head office in London, despite its global reach. You will be aware that two of the three science Nobels this year were won by scientists who were either British, or who did their work in Britain. Given the size of our population, our contribution to science has been disproportionately high. Names of famous British scientists resonate down the ages - Maxwell, Faraday, Darwin, Huxley, Newton, Crick, Hawking. If British footballers or British athletes performed as well as British scientists, we’d win the World Cup, the Ashes and Wimbledon year after year, and our Olympians would be crushed by the weight of their own medals - and yet scientists achieve this worldbeating performance for a fraction the investment devoted to some of these activities. Perhaps more seriously, Britain is a world centre of excellence for science as much as it is a world centre of excellence for financial services.

There is something about Britain that is conducive to science. I like to think that this ‘something’ is that same quiet determination of thought; that native, good-humoured scepticism; that spirit of indomitable independence; that resistance to the  domination of ideology - that characterizes Britons generally and which lies at the heart of Conservative values.

The second theme of Mr Cable’s vision - that the government should only fund those aspects of science that look like producing a fairly immediate dividend - is also, if I might say so, mistaken. If there is one thing that I have learned in all my years at Nature, during which I have scrutinized many thousands of pieces of scientific research, it is this: that scientific advances almost always come from unexpected directions. Scientists know that research directed to specific ends will, like all plans of mice and men, gang aft agley. Fundamental discoveries almost always come from byways, digressions, accidents - the discovery of penicillin is perhaps the most famous example, but it is one of thousands. Science progresses by fairly untrammeled freedom of inquiry. Much of this will go nowhere, of course, but the few discoveries that work will repay this investment a thousandfold.

I close by saying once again that I support the policies of this government, and that I understand that painful cuts will need to be made, and quickly. But I urge you to tread carefully in your approach to the science that is as much a part of this nation’s heritage as our countryside, our great cathedrals, our British spirit. It is science, perhaps more than any other sphere of human activity, that has made Britain great. Science is the key to our long-term prosperity as a society and as a nation.

I remain,

Yours faithfully,

No comments:

Post a Comment