Science, civilisation and humanity
Yesterday saw the publication of Professor Bill Wakeham’s report into the health of UK physics. The Wakeham Review had a strange remit. It seemed to be a response to controversy about the short-term funding settlement for physics, yet it was asked to take a long-term look, deliberately not addressing immediate concerns.
The TUC was highly critical of the £80m shortfall in the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) last year. Many researchers, including hundreds of trade unionists, faced uncertainty and the possible loss of their jobs. Eminent scientists, including Stephen Hawking, expressed grave concerns.
But it is time to look forward. There is little point in re-examining a spending round that is nearly one year old. Instead, as the TUC argues today, future physics funding needs to be put on a stable footing.
We need more children, girls as well as boys, taking up science subjects, at GCSE and A level. We need more graduates and post-graduates. We need more specialist science teachers and better careers advice. Sadly, that all costs money. And as Wakeham reminds us, physics expenditure has not kept pace with the increase in the overall science budget.
Perhaps most important of all, we must continue to champion the cause of curiosity-driven research. That’s a tough call. It is quite proper that all government money is spent wisely and is seen to be spent wisely. In these difficult economic times, that’s more important than ever. We understand the need for medical research, or the science needed to prevent global warming. But curiosity-driven research? Can we afford to fund such a luxury?
In my view, we can’t afford not to fund it. Apart from the economic spin-offs (the world wide web being developed at CERN is the oft-given example), the human desire to explore and discover the physical space around us is as old as civilisation. It’s the very essence of what makes us human. Trying to justify research in monetary terms is rather like trying to put a price on a sunset. We ignore its value at our peril.