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As Britain stages its first-ever national science week, John Gillott and Manjit Kumar question the government's sudden interest in scientific innovation

Science fiction

During the Thatcher years, the development of a policy for science and technology was not high on the government's agenda. Things seem different today. Beginning with the 1993 white paper 'Realising our potential: a strategy for science, engineering and technology', a flurry of initiatives have come out of William Waldegrave's Office of Science and Technology. The government-sponsored National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology in March - called set7--is the latest.

The government's declared aim is to help scientists develop new ideas and technologies, and to foster a wider public appreciation and understanding of science. 'The understanding and application of science', the white paper argues, 'are fundamental to the fortunes of modern nations. Science, technology and engineering are intimately linked with progress across the whole range of human endeavour: educational, intellectual, medical, environmental, social, economic and cultural'.

How does the government intend to promote innovation and application in science and technology? It has reorganised the research councils which disburse government funds to science, into smaller units. It has launched a 'Foresight' initiative to spot and foster innovative scientific and technological ideas. And it has insisted that all research bar particle physics and astronomy should be guided by commercial considerations. To facilitate the latter, the government has introduced the principle of market competition into relations between different research institutions, and provided each research council with a mission statement which 'recognises the importance of research undertaken to meet the needs of users and to support wealth creation' ('Realising our potential').

This whole approach of reorganising research institutions and setting up a committee to predict innovation is a bureaucrat's idea of how problems are solved and innovation achieved. Innovation can only come from individuals or groups of scientists. It cannot be planned or predicted. In the last century, for example, Michael Faraday discovered the possible uses of electricity as a by-product of work on electro-magnetism. This was unforeseen, and most scientists didn't even realise the consequences when the discovery was first made.

The initial blank response to Faraday's discovery highlights the irrational character of Waldegrave's notion that, when all else fails, you should introduce market mechanisms. How can the market assign a value in advance to work whose outcome is of an unknown character? As the Save British Science campaign (SBS) pointed out, (using the government's preferred 'purchaser/provider' language), with long-term research, 'the purchaser does not know what is being produced and the possible providers do not know what, if anything, they will deliver or when'.

Not only is the government's approach irrational, it hasn't even identified the right problem. The government's Foresight initiative gives the impression that there is a shortage of good ideas in the scientific community. Far from it. There is a shortage of cash. If the government seriously wanted to help, it could forget Foresight and endless rearrangements of research bodies and simply stop the real cuts in research funding. Only 55 per cent of alpha-rated research projects are funded today. Cuts in government funding caused the closure of the world class nuclear structure facility at Daresbury in 1993. (For a depressingly long list of other examples, see C Cavendish Rassam, The Second Culture: British Science in Crisis - The Scientists Speak Out).

Cuts also have a more insidious effect: they demoralise scientists and hinder the process of innovation to which the government claims to be committed. In 1986, a House of Lords select committee on science and technology noted that 'the overall picture conveys an impression of turmoil and frustration...morale is low in the research community'. After more cuts in funding, SBS observes that the situation has deteriorated further. The 'turmoil and frustration' of 1986 is now compounded by the fatalistic belief that nothing will change, a mood which SBS rightly sees as 'destructive of morale and the dynamism essential to the pursuit of the first class in research'.

The introduction of competition and commercial considerations into the science base in the context of a cut in overall funding can only exacerbate these trends. Because long-term research is not susceptible to measurement by market mechanisms, such work will simply wither. If their jobs depend on the commercial pay-off, scientists will be driven to play it safe and develop existing knowledge rather than charting unknown waters that may lead nowhere, but could lead to new worlds. Scientists, too, will join in the dull mediocrity of John Major's Britain.

What of the ambition to raise the public understanding of science? The issue of the 'public understanding of science' has become something of a growth area over the past decade. The Royal Society published a report in 1985 which led to the setting up of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (Copus); the Economic and Social Research Council has reported on the problem; the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) has changed its annual meeting to a popular 'science festival'; and a new journal - Public Understanding of Science - has been launched by academics in conjunction with the Science Museum. Now the government's Office of Science and Technology has its own campaign on the same subject. set7 is being organised by the BAAS with government sponsorship and the support of most of the above.

In government publications, especially, two distinct issues are conflated: public understanding of science, and public understanding of the importance of science for human progress. These are different issues: one of us doesn't understand Einstein's general relativity, but we both share a sense of the importance of scientific advance for human progress. They are also related issues however. If people have a sense of the importance of scientific advance for human progress they are more likely to want to grapple with the concepts and methods of science itself. Despite its superficial activism on the subject, the government's approach can promote neither public understanding nor appreciation of science.

Set7 contains the usual mixture of the interesting (lectures in Bristol on work in particle physics), the naff ('stargazing for mums' at Jodrell Bank - is there a special mums' perspective on the heavens?), and the downright dubious (an egg race day at the Durham Light Infantry Museum). Something for all the family, the uncynical commentator might say. But a serious initiative to raise public understanding of science? Pull the other one.

If the aim is to get more people to understand science, then there is no alternative but to encourage more people to study it at school and university; since science is a difficult subject that requires years of attention, preferably at an early age. Government policy on the teaching of science at school is currently all over the place. There is likely to be a near 50 per cent cut in time devoted to the subject if the proposals of Ron Dearing are implemented. The underfunding of higher education threatens science places at university. And the number of PhD places in the sciences is already being reduced.

The government's failing is not just an educational one. All the surveys show that the declining number of students studying the sciences is linked to the reduced prospects for science graduates. Science is seen as a hard subject with little financial reward. If a student enjoys the subject, this isn't such a barrier. But for the rest, it's a put-off that no science festival can overcome.

The government is in no position to promote the public understanding of science, because it cannot give a sense of the importance of science for human progress. For a start, the government can hardly set out a commitment to technological progress with conviction when it is doing such damage to the work of the scientific community. And people will remain rightly sceptical of a government that promises them prosperity through technology when it is unable to provide a decent standard of living for the vast majority today.

More fundamentally, appreciation of science is only possible in a culture which is dynamic and forward looking - one which really is committed to 'realising our potential'. By contrast, modern capitalism is a sluggish system incapable of harnessing human creativity and scientific knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole. The lack of a proper appreciation of science is symptomatic of this.

The Office of Science and Technology cannot expect to generate much enthusiasm about the potential for human progress in the context of a stagnant society and backward-looking culture. What can bold pro-science talk of 'Realising our potential' mean when education secretary John Patten tells teachers to teach their pupils 'to question the often exaggerated view of the infallibility of science as the only means of understanding the world, and the equally exaggerated views of the inadequacy of religion'? And what hope is there of projecting a positive vision of the future when the centrepiece of government policy - 'Back to basics' - is an aspiration to return to the past?

Government 'science policy' really has little to do with promoting innovation. Instead, the state is taking a direct hand in rationalising the science base to fit the needs of a declining capitalist economy. This includes drastically cutting the number of universities given money for research, developing whatever marketable goods can be made from existing scientific and technological know-how, and damn the future. This is short-termist for sure, but we should expect nothing else under a system where rational long-term planning is incompatible with the drive for quick profit.

For the government, taking up the issue of the public understanding of science provides a bit of good publicity on the cheap and an alternative to facilitating the real advance of science. The Tories have cut around £1 billion in today's money from the annual funding of science since the mid-1980s; compared with that, the £265 000 given to BAAS for set7 and the kudos they hope it will bring them is pretty small beer.

For desperate scientists, too, public lecturing on science is an alternative to research. Everyone was keen to praise the erudition of geneticist Steve Jones when he delivered the 1991 Reith lectures. Fewer people realised how he came to give the lectures. In the book version of the talks - The Language of the Genes - Jones writes: 'Finally, I should express my gratitude to the Natural Environment Research Council whose determined refusal to fund my work led me - as so many others - to abandon research, in my case for journalism.'

Of course there should be greater public understanding of science. But the preoccupation with the issue now developing among scientists is of dubious merit. Having woken up to the anti-science trends in society, many in the scientific community are inclined to blame popular prejudice rather than government policy and the backward, conservative culture of contemporary capitalism. Many 'public understanding of science' initiatives are underpinned by an elitist sentiment that the public have a primitive desire to hold on to irrationalism and superstition.

In his Science and Anti-Science, the eminent American historian of science, Gerald Holton, argues that people mistrust science because it deprives 'much of the population of some of the instinctive bases of self-confidence', while anti-science provides one of the 'opiates of the masses'. Lewis Wolpert, the new chairman of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, also believes that science strips away prejudice and makes many people 'feel less comfortable'.

Blaming popular prejudice for anti-science trends has a comforting feel to it. This, however, is not only superficial and wrong; it is a line that William Waldegrave is very happy to take. Having run down science for years, and while still cutting the funding for it, government ministers like to present themselves as the enlightened ones combating public ignorance. Scientists shouldn't play into the government's hands.

The only way significantly to raise the public understanding of science is first of all to raise the public's appreciation of the importance of science to human progress. The best contribution scientists could make to this today would be to show how much they value the science base, by putting more effort and imagination into fighting government attacks on science.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 65, March 1994
 
 

 

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