Thursday, 7 October 2010

In Defence of Funding for Science.

It’s been a good week for British science. A British scientist won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and two Russian scientists, working at a British University won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

The British Scientist, Robert G. Edwards of the University of Cambridge, won his award for the development of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This has been around for a fair while now, and we’ve got a bit used to it – over four million babies have been born as a result of IVF worldwide since it was developed in the 1970s.

Of course this has not always been seen as a good thing. There are genuine and serious concerns about the world’s population, and not everybody feels that adding to the numbers of humans on the planet is a good thing. However despite one or two stories about irresponsible use of the technology, this has been a contribution to the greater control over fertility and family size enjoyed in the modern world, which taken together have greatly improved living conditions for many people, particularly in working class communities in the developed world. It could be argued that this is largely due to the voluntary use of contraception, however persuading people that the use of contraception is a good thing relies upon people knowing they are able to have children when they want to, and stand a good chance of those children surviving to adulthood, and going on to become parents themselves.

Seen in that light technologies that reassure people they will be able to have children when they want to do so (even if never used) are as important as those that enable them to choose not to have children when they don’t.

The Nobel Prize for Physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian Scientists now based at the University of Manchester, for the development of graphine. Graphine is a form of carbon made up of atoms arranged in a continuous, two-dimensional sheet, which has remarkable properties of strength and conductivity. The truly remarkable thing about this discovery was that to a large extent it involved attacking ordinary graphite with sellotape.

This is the second year running that British based scientists have won two Nobel Prizes. In 2009 Charles Kao, a Chinese born researcher shared the Physics prize for work on fibre optics he carried out at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, based at Harlow in Essex, during the 1960s, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the Medical Research Council laboratories in Cambridge shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for studies on the structure and function of the ribosome carried out in the 1990s.

In 2008 British scientists won no Nobel Prizes, but in 2007 Sir Martin Evans of Cardiff University and Oliver Smithers, a British born researcher based at the University of North Carolina shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for work on gene expression in embryonic stem cells in mice.

The Nobels are not the only prizes scientists can win for their work, and in many ways reflect the values of the time in which they were created. They reflect the belief that science is about improving the world for man. Thus there are prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry, but not, for example, ecology. However they are the best known and most widely recognised scientific awards outside the world of science, and grant their recipients a considerable amount of recognition among the wider population.

Of course science is not all about winning prizes, in fact while the recognition is nice I doubt that there is a scientist in the world does what they do with the hope of winning prizes. Many scientists do work in areas covered by the Nobel Prizes, broadly speaking medical research and developing new technologies. Other scientists work in fields that didn’t seem important when the prizes were set up but do now, such as the environmental sciences, or simply weren’t recognised, like geology.

Many of the most amazing discoveries in science serve no immediate purpose. Last week US scientists announced the first discovery of a rocky planet in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of another star, Gliese 581. Of course Gliese 581 is 20 light years away, so this information is unlikely to be useful to us any time in the next thousand years or so, but in terms of shear amazingness, this is (to me at least) the top discovery of the year.

It is also the role of science to tell us things we don’t want to know as well as things we do. We have come to accept that a early diagnosis and treatment of a potentially fatal or debilitating disease is a good thing, but sometimes struggle when we are advised to change our lifestyles, give up smoking, or cut down on alcohol or fatty foods. Similarly bad news about environmental issues can be hard to accept. Many people refuse to accept all evidence that human activities can alter the climate. Declining fish stocks seem equally difficult to convince everyone of.

Environmental issues are particularly problematic as there are often powerful organisations and individuals with vested interests in the status quo, and politicians can be reluctant to take these on. If I choose to drink too much it will affect my health and the wellbeing of my immediate family, but have few consequences beyond that. If the company that produces the power I need to run my home or my business behaves in an environmentally irresponsible manner then there is only so much I can do to mitigate this; I am reliant on my government to regulate the power company.

Governments also have a role to play in funding scientific research. This is not, and should not be, the sole responsibility of governments, but nevertheless their role is an important one. Both private companies and charitable bodies also invest in research, but they will only invest in locations where the infrastructure exists for this to happen.

The UK is currently prioritising cutting the national deficit above all other concerns. This is likely to include cuts in scientific research, and in the infrastructure that supports it. If we loose this infrastructure then it will be far harder for us to attract outside investment in the future, and harder to train people to carry out future research.

The Science is Vital campaign is campaigning to oppose cuts in funding, and for a long-term commitment to scientific research. To this end they have a petition and are organising a rally in London on Saturday 9th October.

There are of course a lot of areas public funding facing cuts in the near future, and many of them deserve very close scrutiny. However science is a particularly vulnerable field. About 30% of the UK’s GDP is reliant on science and technology, and potentially be lost through lack of investment. To put this in perspective the financial services industry accounts for about 14% of GDP, and we are regularly assured that this is so important that this must be supported at all costs.