science is vital
note: This article first appeared at thebbusinessdesk.com.
In the middle of all the pre-CSR gloom about impending spending cuts, something significant happened. Science Is Vital was born, and made front-page news.
On 8th September, Vince Cable’s proposed science cuts, his “science strategy”, was under fire from some seriously eminent people. Then Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at UCL blogged about it all at nature.com the same day.
On 9th September, Exquisite Life science bloggers took Vince Cable to task for an interview he gave on the Today programme.
On 10th September, hashtag #scienceisvital was tweeted for the first time.
Some of Vince Cable’s message on 8th September was termed crude advocacy (Lord May’s term) for “more commercially related research”.
To readers of thebusinessdesk.com, “more commercially related research” might sound like common sense, what needs to be done, getting the pie-in-the-sky into the real world. Not so. And particularly not so here in this region, where world-class science research makes its mark, where medical and life science research in particular is so important.
By the end of September, over 36K people had signed the Science is Vital petition. As well as yours truly, they included many eminent people, Royal Society Fellows, many professors, members of both Houses of Parliament. Important organisations from the Wellcome Trust to the Trades Union Congress as well as prestigious universities, charities and societies pledged support. Oxford and Warwick Professor Colin Blackmore addressed a rally of thousands in Trafalgar Square.
It had an effect. When George Osborne got up on his hind legs and announced his savage cuts, he also announced that the science research budget was frozen.
A week after Osborne’s speech, Bob Ward wrote in the New Scientist that reality looked to be slightly different. There was devil in the detail. Cuts might actually be some 17%. And, moreover, the UK investment in science research is anyway below the OECD average, and markedly lower than Canada, France, Germany or the US.
Why is this story a cause for optimism, even if Bob Ward’s prophecy about the hollowness of the Coalition’s promises is proved true?
The lasting legacy of original Lunarmen was in the harnessing of nature’s power. That revolution, based on science, saved our sweat in the making of things. Transport systems, buildings, cities . . .
Technologies spawn technologies. Today’s technologies resemble or replace the natural — stem cells, genetic engineering, implants, artificial intelligence. And because billions of us can now communicate ideas across time and geography, the building blocks for unimagined technologies will tumble out into the world with ever-increasing rapidity.
There will be technologies tomorrow than we cannot imagine today, technologies that seem no more likely to us today than the internet would have been to Matthew Boulton over 200 years ago.
Here’s tiny fr’instance: Last week the national news was full of the story of a blind man who could ‘see’ because of an implanted chip in the back of his eye. I blogged about it — and about Aston’s James Wolffsohn. He’s an optometrist, so someone who knows a thing or two about the front of our eyes, our lens and muscles. Intraocular lenses (i.e. lenses in the eye) are now a routine implant after cataract surgery. But he and other scientists are pioneering implant devices that have miniscule springs or hinges then can be controlled by the patient’s own eye muscles. Bionic eyes.
Enabling the blind to see, the visually impaired to focus.
The stuff of miracles? No, the stuff of science research. Science is vital. And now on the agenda of political decision-makers as never before.
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On 5th November, Stephen Curry on his nature.com blog wrote an annotated history of the Science is Vital campaign from his perspective.