Science cuts would bite the hand that feeds
‘Science cracks code to feed world’, says the headline on page three of The Times today. Now I know the first rule of journalism is that the headline should grab the reader’s attention, but even so, this is a bold claim. Nevertheless, this article reports that a team of British scientists have, for the first time, read the genetic code of wheat. This means that genes which control critical traits such as drought and salt tolerance, disease resistance and grain production can be identified. Across the world, wheat is a staple crop second in importance only to rice. This breakthrough will allow the development of hardier and higher yielding strains of wheat and so could lead to greater food security and lower prices. ‘Feed the World’, which those of us of a certain age remember as the Live Aid slogan, could be about to take on a whole new meaning.
So it is ironic that this article appears on the same day that leading scientists argue that planned cuts of 25% in their budget could lead to big cuts in the UK’s scientific research capacity.
According to the Guardian, particle accelerators such as the £383m Diamond Light Source or the £145m Isis neutron source could be mothballed. An almost £1bn cut to the £3.5bn science research budget would entail the loss of significant numbers of postgraduate and post-doctoral researchers, creating a “lost generation” of scientists and engineers and draining innovation out of the economy.
Brian Cox, the Professor of Particle Physics at Manchester University and often the public face of UK science, says the take up of science in schools and universities would be hit. This, at a time when the US and Germany are investing in science because they recognise that this stimulates economic growth and can help to rebalance the economy.
Congratulations to those scientists that may, indeed, have cracked the code to feed the world. What a marvellous achievement! But we have more codes to crack. Such as the code to stop the planet from overheating, the code to deliver long term, productive, profitable industries and the code to stop cancer cells from spreading.
To do that, we need our science base. I hope Ministers remember that in the run up to the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20th October.