What’s the point of science?

Blue sky

Blue skies research costs money!

Saving money is never much fun, especially when you have to save billions. But it can give you a chance to think about what you actually need, and what you can do without (new shoes in my case).

The recession is a good example of this. The government is planning to cut research funding, perhaps by up to 15%, so scientists are fighting their corner and trying to persuade MPs and anyone else who will listen that science is vital – sign the petition if you agree!

Obviously science has made the world a better place – people don’t often die of smallpox any more for one thing. But is that the only reason why science is vital – because it brings practical benefits? What about science for the sake of it, ‘blue skies research’ that aims to satisfy our curiosity about the world we live in?

Blue skies research is what science is all about. We understand almost nothing about most of the universe, which I think should inspire everyone to want to find out more.

I think science is vital because it’s practical and inspiring, so I signed the petition and wrote to my MP to encourage him to support it. Here’s the reply I got:

Dear Neil Barrie,

Thank you for contacting me about government support for science, technology and engineering.

Over the next few weeks and months, major decisions will be made on government spending priorities as part of a wider move to stabilise our country’s finances and rebalance the economy. They will help to define what we value as a nation and the direction that we wish to take.

Investing in science and research is clearly a part of that. However I do not believe that the only worthwhile measure of a government’s support for science and technology is the amount of money it spends. It is right that
we ask how budgets across the public sector – including the science research budget – can deliver more for less.

In addition, there is a role for Government funded research into new technologies and products to ensure environmental and consumer safety – something that has been sorely lacking. I hope that whatever changes are
made, the Government bears this in mind.

I can tell you that the Government has said that it has no intention of simply slicing pieces off of the science budget here and there; nor do Ministers wish to politicise these decisions.

Very best wishes,

Zac Goldsmith

First of all I want to point out that (a) my name is not Neil, and (b) I did not vote for Zac Goldsmith. And I certainly won’t vote for him in the future if he carries on spelling my name wrong.

After that rather poor start to the email, the rest of it didn’t fill me with confidence either. Mr Goldsmith sounds like he thinks science is only about practical benefits – and that we should be getting more benefit for less money.

A lot of science is done with a clear aim in mind. But because research is about pushing the boundaries of knowledge, we don’t always have enough information to ask the right questions. Sometimes the end benefit of research is only obvious in hindsight.

A perfect example of this is the work of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at Manchester University, who have just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Their research focuses on graphene, a sheet of carbon that’s just one atom thick. Graphene is very strong and excellent at conducting electricity – but we might never have known this without ‘blue skies’ research, which in this started with the two researchers using sellotape to peel flakes of graphene off pieces graphite (or pencil lead).

Graphene could have an exciting future as the basis of faster computers and touch screen technology – not bad for research that might not be seen as ‘high-priority’. As Professor Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said, “It would be hard to envisage better exemplars of the value of enabling outstanding individuals to pursue ‘open-ended’ research projects whose outcome is unpredictable.”

I hope Zac Goldsmith is listening – science isn’t just about ‘new technologies and products to ensure environmental and consumer safety’. We need open-ended research too – research that will tell us about the ‘unknown unknowns’, the questions that we didn’t even know we should be asking.

Good researchers always have one eye on these unknowns, not because blue-skies research result in big prizes but because their curiosity is never satisfied. Cutting the money that funds that curiosity would be a big mistake.

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