Bad Science?

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry sometimes. It appears that the Science Minister, Lord Drayson has called for a ‘a debate on whether a bigger chunk of the research budget should be spent in areas that would benefit the economy’, reported by the BBC.

It seems faintly amusing to me that this all comes in the midst of all the celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who along with Alfred Wallace, was responsible for one of the greatest scientific theories in human history; it’s certainly one the greatest in the life sciences. The pressure to give research an applied focus today means that, if he were applying for funding now, there’d be no guarantee he’d get anything.

But then, the same could be said of James Clerk Maxwell, without whose work on electromagnetic theory there would probably be no relativity, no quantum mechanics. Without QM, there would be no semiconductor physics to speak of and no silicon chips. So, I wouldn’t be writing this blog without Maxwell’s help.

Many of the greatest scientific theories and breakthroughs would never have been given funding under the current models. And Drayson seems to be positing the idea of making the focus even more applied, by the sounds of it. Perhaps this perspective is not altogether surprising from an engineer, with a training focused on the applications of science.

His speech to Foundation for Science and Technology says:

“I don’t accept that identifying those areas which are best aligned with our economic strategy necessarily means you have to focus on more applied research,”

But the rest of what he says sounds like that is precisely what he is saying. Science funding and research over the last twenty years has been, like most of the rest of the HE sector, driven by the needs of business. Of course it would actually help if business knew what they wanted most of the time. But they don’t.

As a result of that and of a host of other factors, science research and teaching in universities is a mess. The number of home students studying science continues on its seemingly inexorable downward trend. Postgraduate science stdy is falling too. Entry to sceince subjects is weakened to keep up numbers, which has knock-on effects on what can be taught (I’m specifically thinking of maths here). And campaigns like Science: So What? so Everything look like they’re doing little else than pissing into the wind.

As a society we hugely denigrate science and those who do it. That is all the more shocking when one considers just how much science is at the centre of almost everything we do now. But most people don’t see that. There is a wider mistrust and a lack of respect for science that needs to be addressed even from the earliest years o school if this is to be fixed in the long term.

Running half-baked science campaigns and making the pursuit of science ever more deterministic and risk-averse are not the ways to do it.

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