Blue skies or no sky at all

We must save pure research - it could be key to Earth's future, says Kevin Fong

March 19, 2009

In these times of austerity, it is tempting to polarise one's view of the world and to imagine that all its ills are the fault of a small herd of scapegoat financial types that society would be better off without. In truth, the economic crisis is a consequence of myriad failures in a complex system, which together have conspired to create a most perfect storm.

I begin with this charitable interpretation of the global economic downturn in the hope that my reluctance to simplify, amplify and polarise against the Government and the financial sector will encourage them to refrain from the same tendencies when dealing with academia, particularly science.

I hope, too, that the crisis helps the Treasury understand the complex interplay between blue-skies and directed science, their interdependence and inseparability. In the prevailing climate, deploying in favour of directed science while paying lip service and little else to the blue skies, is an easy but fatally flawed option.

The Prime Minister, like US President Barack Obama, recently pledged his faith in science as the foundation upon which the UK's future can be built.

"We will not allow science to become a victim of the recession," Gordon Brown says. This is all to the good, but such promises must amount to more than a commitment to technologies that promise to build and flog a more profitable widget.

I have been on this hobby horse before, and recently, but it is worth getting into the saddle again because I sense that a fight of fundamental importance lies ahead and the battle lines must be drawn.

These are extraordinary times, with the ripples of current events set to touch us all. This, then, is a nodal point for the science community. The next few months will decide whether the recession will prove to be its finest hour or its worst nightmare.

Played properly, science has the opportunity simultaneously to demonstrate its value to industry and the public at large while preserving its all-essential blue-skies work. To do this, it must convince the Government that protecting its funding stream, while a good thing, is not enough to stop science proper becoming a victim of the recession.

Blue-skies research is the soul of science, its raison d'etre. Without blue-skies research, science becomes little more than a corporate research and development wing.

There is more at stake here than a philosophical principle. There are undeniable hazards associated with the abandonment of blue-skies research. Seemingly irrelevant lines of scientific investigation from the past have come to our rescue time and time again.

If the Government is relying on nuclear energy to help tackle global warming, then it should be grateful that no directed-research imperative saw fit to shut down the institutions of physics in which Albert Einstein trained and worked.

If it hopes that stem-cell therapies and the manipulation of the genome hold the cure to some of humankind's ills, then it should feel fortunate that Lawrence Bragg's pursuit of X-ray crystallography was indulged at the end of the 19th century. To the casual observer, his efforts did little more than make pretty patterns, but by the 1950s they would be the key to cracking the double-helix structure of DNA.

Directed programmes of research help to push projects over the line from the laboratory to applications. But blue-skies science is a kind of life insurance policy for the species. It provides a foundation upon which the tools required to foresee and avoid catastrophe depend.

We pay into it now, with no tangible benefit, so that future generations will be safe. Not recognising that is to fail to learn the lessons of history, both distant and recent, and to embrace short-termism of the very worst kind.

The Government will not wake up to this on its own. The science community will have to unite and do its bit. It will have to fight hard and box clever to prevail.

It is tempting to refuse to play altogether, to resist attempts to force scientists to describe their research in terms of its potential material value. But the moral high ground is not a strategic position from which a war for funds can be won.

Researchers in fields fortunate enough to be able to hint at the so-called "real-world relevance" of their research should do so. At this time, it is an unavoidable game. But they must also protect, support and fight tooth and nail for their blue-skies brethren. The politicians with the purse strings must be made to understand the true nature and value of science.

Despite the credit crunch, the Government continues to kowtow to the more vociferous giants of private equity and highfalutin finance, who think vocational training is everything and academia for academia's sake is a luxury the country can ill afford.

But that way danger lies, and when I say danger, I mean the kind that genuinely has the potential to threaten the future of the whole planet.

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