Why science needs the state, but the state needs science even more

As we seem to have no blog today, here’s an opinion piece I wrote back in March…

If the government fails to invest in science today, there will inevitably be both a huge cultural and economic price to pay tomorrow.

Last week, Science Minister David Willetts described Pfizer’s plans to close its Kent R&D site, potentially causing the loss of up to 2,400 UK jobs, as “a wake up call for Britain”. But, has this “wake up call” come five months too late? Now, as the dust has settled from last October’s comprehensive government spending review, it would appear that UK science hasn’t actually come out of things quite as unscathed as may have first appeared.

Back in October, scientists were engaging in some highly gratuitous mutual back-slapping and were celebrating the fact that the UK science budget had been frozen. Given that cuts of around twenty-five per cent had initially been feared following remarks made by Business Secretary Vince Cable, this freeze was seen as a great success for the ‘Science is Vital’ campaign, a campaign which George Osborne made direct allusion to in his spending review speech. Yet, when you adjust for inflation, this budget freeze actually amounts to a ten per cent reduction in real terms over the next four years. This was subsequently compounded by the government’s decision, announced at the end of December, to cut capital spending – the government expenditure on building, maintenance and equipment – by a staggering forty-one per cent.

But why shouldn’t the government cut central funding levels for science, especially when they are having to make hefty cuts in other areas? Surely, competition and the free market is the best way to drive innovation and scientific discovery forward?

Well, this may be all very well and good when it comes to producing the next iPhone or high definition television, but such economic liberalism ultimately fails to incentivise far-reaching, fundamental scientific research. Britain is a country with dwindling natural resources, so it is vital that the government invests in science to help our economy. Every year, physics based industries alone contribute approximately £100bn, which equates to six per cent of our national wealth. Scientific research is also intrinsically bound up with our national health system. The UK is currently second only to Holland in terms of the proportion of its population who give money to medical research charities. To put it bluntly, this seems to have led the government to believe that any cuts made to funding medical research will be compensated for by the generosity of UK citizens.

It is important to bear in mind that the UK cuts come at a time when other countries, such as Germany, France, India, Japan, USA and China are all increasing spending on science as a way to boost their respective economies. This not only renders the UK less able to compete with these countries in terms of pioneering research, but it also risks the possibility of a ‘brain drain’, reminiscent of that experienced under Thatcher in the 1980s, when scientists left this country in droves in search of greener, better-funded pastures abroad.

Last year, three Nobel prizes were awarded to researchers working in the UK, two of whom were in fact of Russian nationality. The UK is currently one of the world’s leading centres for scientific research – a fact we should all be exceedingly proud of – but the government’s cuts will endanger our ability to attract the best scientists from around the world. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, was last month reported to have said: “I think it’s disappointing… that what is being done in France and Germany is not being replicated in the UK”. These comments came following the publication of EU statistics which show that UK government R&D expenditure has now fallen below the EU average level. In addition, last night, John Denham MP, Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, warned: “There is a real danger of the UK losing its leading position in world science.”

By making cuts in central funding for science, the government is essentially claiming it has the ability to pick winners, but this is something that the scientific community themselves – let alone government – simply cannot do.

It is of paramount importance that the government continues to fund a wide range of fundamental scientific research, across all fields. Such research is constantly generating spin-off technologies, yet one cannot possibly hope to predict from where the next innovations are most likely to come. To take the example of CERN, a major beneficiary of UK government funding, spin-off technologies include: new cancer treatment therapies, developments in MRI scanning, improved methods for the incineration of nuclear waste, advancements in semi-conductors and, last but not least, the invention of the world wide web.

However, whilst these economic arguments may be the language best understood in Whitehall, it is important not to forget that science’s raison d’etre is somewhat grander than simply generating revenue for the national economy. We must not neglect the value of science for science’s sake.

Science is essentially about improving the human condition, not just in terms of increasing levels of health and physical comfort, but also in terms of helping us to better understand our place in the universe. A monetary value simply cannot be placed on these sorts of paradigm-changing scientific discoveries, which dramatically alter both our personal and societal Weltanschauung. The coalition government’s attempts to commoditise scientific discovery are dangerous, because the market can never take into account such great benefits as these. This Boston school of free-market economics is inherently short-termist and fails to place sufficient value upon the long-term benefits fundamental scientific research can bring. Unfortunately, the government is unlikely to ever acknowledge this, as our democratic system is equally short-termist and does not reward long-term government planning.

There is an ancient Greek proverb which says: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” Sadly, this is a concept which George Osborne and his axe-wielding, neo-liberal cronies, clamoring for a smaller state and minimal government intervention, seem hopelessly unable to grasp.

 

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