All Science is Vital


Well, it’s been over a month since I submitted my thesis, so time to get back on the horse, and get back into blogging.  Thanks for coming back!  The entire UK waits in trepidation for the details of the Spending Review to be unveiled.  The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is on a mission to cut the deficit by a whopping £86bn, corresponding to departmental cuts of around 20%.  Education is on the block, and research in particular.

As you may have seen, scientists avoided their usual temptation to simply wail and grind their teeth, but to delegate the biblical despair and to take their concerns public through the Science is Vital campaign.  Thousands of people demonstrated against cutting the science budget, attempting to convince George Osborne that cutting science is a false economy.  The slogan on placards may have been glib: “Banks don’t cure disease”, etc, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.  If we are to live up to our dreams of being a high-tech, green economy, then a well-trained, highly skilled workforce is absolutely crucial.  Not to mention an energetic and well-funded academic sector to develop prototypical technologies.

Last week I attended a workshop titled “Applications of Astronomy”.  Now, most people would say “what applications?”, thinking that astronomers haven’t changed much in the last 400 years, sitting at telescopes and making painfully careful notes about the positions of the stars.  But, that’s not true anymore – astronomers are at the forefront of developing advanced optical instruments and image processing software, which have made their way into microscopes, satellite tracking of terror suspects, medical imaging, studying CO2 emissions, fusion energy (don’t laugh, it’s only 50 years away, just as it was 50 years ago!).

Even if we discount these modern innovations, the most important revelations about our universe came from an interest in astronomy.  Newton, Galileo and Kepler were vital in the development of the clockwork universe of classical mechanics, without which there would be no Industrial Revolution, and no modern world.  But they weren’t motivated by industrial concerns – they were motivated by understanding the motion of planets in our Solar System.  Thinking about such an esoteric problem forced them to develop physical laws that applied on Earth as well as off it, with immense social and economic impact, changing history forever.

Let me put my astronomy flag down for a moment.  No individual science can really take precedence here – geneticists would argue for DNA’s discovery by Watson and Crick as a revolutionary moment (and its full effects are yet to be seen).  Chemists could equally place Mendeleev’s Periodic Table in such high esteem.  Science may divide itself into factions, but only because it’s incredibly hard for scientists to become experts in what are now vastly detailed, complex fields.  Some of the best science happens because of chance encounters between seemingly unconnected pieces of work.  Einstein, for example, could not have formulated his general theory of relativity if he had not come across the mathematical framework laid down by Riemann, which was seemingly inapplicable to the Universe.  There are countless examples across many fields, and there are countless more to come.

Here’s my final thought.  Science is Vital – but don’t make us choose which parts of Science.  The future of Science is multidisciplinary – fighting climate change, developing renewable energies, preserving biodiversity, etc.  Just like any ecosystem, science thrives when its diversity is preserved and nurtured.  If you begin to destroy too much of any section of science, the rest of the system suffers.  George Osborne’s televised approval of the Diamond synchroton source should be encouraging, but instead it terrifies me.  I hope his view of Science isn’t the construction of machines where you press the button and answers come out (and if it is, maybe we’re partially to blame, LHC being the case in point).

But if Science’s diversity disappears because of the Conservative’s ideological desire to shrink government under the guise of post-crunch economic surgery, then there won’t be any machine that can give us the answers, no matter how many buttons we press.

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