Presented as: National Science: Weak (lecture), Mensa Lecture, 2 Carlton House Terrace, (with Jack Cohen as chairman) 1900h, 27 March 1995.

See also: Scientists’ Opinions on Innovation Strategy [illustrated lecture], Corporate Affiliates’ Forum, London: Institute of Biology, 8 June 1995.

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From Laboratory News, April 1996

National Science? Weak

by Brian J Ford

In a flood of press releases, the world of British science opened its doors to the public. The national week of science, engineering and technology - Set96 - was presented as a move to make science approachable. In truth it had a hidden agenda. Set96 was a massive propaganda exercise, launched with finance from the government, to obscure the damage they have done to British science.

We expect to find triumphalist celebrations like this in authoritarian societies which try to control the way people think. In the days of the communist era there were international cultural festivals - held at a time when possession of western literature was a punishable offence. The authorities pumped money into a public display designed to conceal the truth.

National Science Week brings something similar to Britain. A quarter of academic funding has been slashed in the last five years; now we face a thirty per cent cut in the equipment budget for universities. The majority of young researchers are on fixed-term contracts. This has a disastrous effect on recruitment into science. These young scientists can’t commit themselves to buy a home, cannot guarantee stable education for their children, cannot plan their future. Far from facing an exciting vision of a creative future, bright young researchers are being deterred from a career in science because of pay and prospects. At a time when we are desperate need of innovation, the government has fostered a system in which the best minds are driven out.

My Laboratory News questionnaire on scientists’ attitudes has already revealed how disillusioned we are with current policies. Several views were put before the respondents:

Over 95 per cent of responding scientists disagreed with those statements. The proposals that the government’s science policy was ‘far-sighted and valuable’, and that science is ‘more soundly-based than ever before’ were similarly rejected. Even more denied that ‘morale is high’.

Of course reform of science was necessary. A system of tenure which offered secure posts to people doing little creative research was clearly due for overhaul. The problem is that the move has been in the wrong direction.

Technology Foresight set out to bring together great brains to prognosticate our technological future. Such exercises in the past have almost always failed. Even if the idea had succeeded, it was still not the answer science demands. Technology Foresight deals with hardware - with the products that result from scientific discovery. There were no ‘Scientific Future’ panels to set alongside. No attention has been paid to that.

We used to hear of the need for blue-skies research - projects attracting venture capital in the hope of leading to a viable product for the market-place. Though it sounded attractive, it did not lead to the free-thinking innovation you might expect. It was underpinned by the notion of research being driven by market forces. The fact is that science is done for the fun, and for the challenge. Scientific discoveries have rarely been made with the market in mind. Market-driven policies maintained by managers are anathema to the world of scientific research.

This is why most of the great paradigm shifts - those memorable breakthrough developments from electricity to antibiotics - have not come from the well-funded departments. The breakthrough is the province of the individual, not the establishment. The thrill of creating a new synthesis, of seeing what others have failed to see, is what drives a mind through science. It is the delight of treading in virgin snow. Anyone can see those ‘blue skies’ simply by raising their sights above the ground. But to walk in virgin snow takes tenacity and the explorer’s delight in novelty. Most is already well trodden underfoot - finding some that is new and awaiting discovery takes tenacity and is not done by everyone.

One of the meetings which helped to launch Set96 attracted well over 200 people. Yet one of the main lecturers - already a successful television presenter - was struggling to survive on consultancies, after quitting a university post when promised support facilities were withheld. The meeting chairman heads a department in West London which is grossly overcrowded. Though there are plenty of laboratories available, they have been mothballed as nobody can afford to pay the bench fees. There have even been attempts by the Department of the Environment to compromise the future of the building in which the sponsoring organisation is based.

Scientists should be using National Science Week to warn the public of the harm being done to discovery. Once the old system of unearned job-security had been supervened, we should have moved into an age where funds were available for the free-wheeling, inexpensive, innovative ventures which will point the way to the future. We should campaign for a new era of progress. Scientists should campaign for a higher profile for science at governmental level, and should draw the attention of the public to the sad state which government has inflicted on research.

Set96 is now behind us. We need a new sense of campaigning for the future of science. If science seizes the chance, the public could find out what is really going on in Set97.

See also: main bibliography on the topic, the original article and the full questionnaire.