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