How’s that for Impact?


Anyone who spends any amount of time in an astronomy department (or particle physics, for that matter) in the UK will have “special” words for the concept of the “impact” of research.  This latest article from BBC News shows us all that science with wealth-generating “impact” usually has its roots in something much more fundamental (and less lucrative).

OK, let’s set the scene.  Science Funding in the UK is on shaky ground – the Science and Technology Facilities Council (which pays my wages) came into existence in 2007 (the merger of several other funding councils), with some worrying holes in its budget.  The result of this was some stringent cuts in funding for UK Astronomy and Particle Physics.  While certain projects were deemed worth saving (e.g. the UK’s contribution to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider), other projects were not (insert lengthy list of telescopes that the UK will no longer support).  On the head of this hardship, and with the credit crunch also biting government funding, there is strong pressure on both funding councils and the scientists themselves to make their research “profitable”.

Now, for a scientist with close ties to industry, or a scientist with immediately obvious commercial applications to their research, this is probably fine.  In fact, scientists in these circumstances may already have some experience in the often difficult business of “Knowledge Transfer”.  It may not surprise you to find that astronomers and particle physicists are not adept at this.  In fact, ask any fundamental scientists, and they will probably treat you a little oddly (probably not too far off from the behaviour that wildebeest exhibit when a lion approaches).  They’re not used to trying to justify why they’re doing something.  Most will think (rather naively, you might say) that they’ve been given carte blanche to figure out why the universe is the way it is.  From my experience, astronomers don’t get into the business to make money – that much is obvious.  Now don’t get me wrong, some astronomers are very successful in making their research very useful. But sadly, they appear to be exceptions that prove the rule.

Can you tell me what the economic impact of thermodynamics is?  Not even Lord Kelvin could.  He would need a flawless crystal ball to be able to predict the prevalence of the engine, or its ultimate use in developing new energy sources that might save the human race one day.

Or Quantum Mechanics? Now we come at last to the BBC News article.  They have used a bizarre quantum mechanical trick to create pressure-sensitive touch screens for mobile phones.  The bizarreness comes from something called “quantum tunneling”.  If you throw a sub atomic particle against a wall (or more correctly, a strong potential barrier), then you would expect it to bounce back.  But, quantum physics tells us that there is a finite probability that the particle will pass straight through the barrier as if it didn’t exist.  So, if you chuck enough particles against the wall, then you will end up with some of them passing straight through.

This is strange stuff, but this process happens in the centre of our Sun, allowing hydrogen to fuse into helium, which powers the Sun and provides the heat and light we need to survive.

How easy is it to predict the impact of science? In some cases it’s breathtakingly easy.  In other times, it is damn near impossible.  I’m pretty sure Bohr and Schrodinger wouldn’t have put mobile phones on a grant application, and I’m sure Einstein would have been mortified to put the atomic bomb on his.

It’s only right that Science should do what it can to pay its way – but put scientists in too small a cage, and the most important, wealth-generating, life-saving discoveries will pass them by.  So cut them a little slack, and you will be reaping real financial rewards.

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