The future of science: ‘Isn’t it interesting?’
I had never heard this anecdote before this morning, but apparently when plans for the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science project in the world, were first mooted, along with the costs, UK Ministers baulked. They were, however, wrong-footed by the scientist who also happened to be Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, who said, “Yes, but isn’t it interesting?”
Given Lady T’s attitude towards trade unions, we don’t often speak of her in flattering tones, but she was right. Yes, it is interesting. It’s also very worthy for reasons of both economic growth and scientific discovery.
David Willetts, the new Science Minister, fleshed out his own thoughts on the future of science in a speech at the Royal Institution this morning (and it was in his speech that I heard the anecdote set out above). The good news is that the Minister is well aware of the importance of blue sky research. Given the pressures on the national finances, this is reassuring, since we sometimes hear a short-sighted argument that unless a project has a defined economic output, it shouldn’t be funded. Most science spin-offs were unidentifiable in advance, but had huge benefits for the economy. The World Wide Web is just one example.
David Willetts also spoke of the importance of procurement and its value in fostering innovation. This gets a thumbs up from the TUC, as does his endorsement of James Dyson’s report (“very valuable”, in the Minister’s words) ‘Ingenious Britain’. It was good to hear the Dyson Review get a mention. The Coalition Agreement says the Government will “consider” it, but I have heard nothing of it for weeks and I was afraid it might have sunk without a trace.
Now for the difficult bit. David Willetts admitted what we all know, which is that the finances are tight and, in his own words, “there are areas which we can only really advance once the comprehensive spending review has been concluded”. Indeed. What’s more, science is relatively easy to cut, since many projects are so complex that they are often not understood. There will be no public outcry against cutting funding for that which isn’t understood in the first place.
David Willetts is a thoughtful man and seems well suited to his role. I hope his political skills are as sharp as his intellect. If we are to get the economy back on track, cutting the deficit is just one part of the story. Growing our way to recovery is by far the more important task. Science will be so important to stimulating economic growth in the coming years that we really cannot afford to cut it. David Willetts needs to argue that case continually in the months ahead.
Science-led economic growth? Now that would be interesting!