Don't knock knowledge

Kevin Fong says the experiments at Cern represent science at its finest

September 18, 2008

Sometime last week my radio alarm turned itself on and I found myself waking to the sound of some bloke burbling on about how we shouldn't be wasting money on blue-skies science research and how we should be spending it on solving problems like global warming.

I wondered, transiently, how I had managed to tune in to this fountain of vox pop nonsense before realising, to my utter horror, that the voice belonged to Professor Sir David King, one-time chief scientific adviser to the Government.

Professor King was speaking on Radio 4 in his capacity as the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and was precising his opening speech to this year's conference.

The gist of Professor King's interview, if I understood it correctly, was that science and scientists in the 21st century should stop messing about with fundamental questions around Life, The Universe and Everything, and focus upon the more worthy task of saving the planet.

The British science community is only just beginning to emerge from the mushroom cloud and crater left by the big science budget cuts of the mid-1980s. Our participation in international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider is allowing us once more to make science what it should be at its best: bold, audacious and extreme.

It has taken 20 years or so to persuade the Government to relinquish the idea that the only good science is science that makes a profit. And so this notion - that we are wasting money on space exploration and particle physics when there are more immediate problems to address around the globe - comes as a bit of a blow.

Don't get me wrong: in the league table of noble causes, saving the world has got to be right up there. But, as far as I can tell, this is not what science is set up to do and historically this is not how things have ever worked.

Nobody asked Newton how understanding the motions of celestial bodies might avoid the endless warring that ravaged 17th-century Europe. Nor did anyone inquire of Hawking how the Big Bang could help avert the housing crash of the early 1990s. Nor, for that matter, was Darwin asked how evolution was helping with the price of fish.

To state that the science community should focus its attention solely upon the practical problems of the world, rather than mess around with fundamental science, is to suggest that the myriad global ills are somehow its fault - that if the boffins weren't getting so excited about matters of seemingly trivial relevance, if they turned their attention to building something useful for a change, the world would be a cooler and less hungry place.

Worse still, it lets Government and society in general dodge responsibility and pretend that the problem belongs to someone else.

Now that is not to say that science does not have a role to play; on the contrary, it has a pretty good track record in making contributions that have improved the lot of mankind. But none of this happened in a directed fashion, and where science has done a great deal of good it has done so mostly serendipitously. The discovery of penicillin, for example, or X-ray imaging were happy accidents whose seed found fertile soil in the minds of people with scientific training.

Had Professor King lived in earlier times - had he advised those in power around 150 years earlier - he would surely have campaigned for a more direct approach to the problems that were apparent in the middle of the 19th century. He might have taken the likes of Swedish Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius to task for his esoteric investigation of the origin of the prehistoric ice ages. He might have suggested that John Tyndall stop climbing mountains and refrain from his pursuit of the discipline of geology.

And yet the work of Arrhenius and Tyndall forms the foundation on which much of our under-standing of global warming in the 21st century is built. Back then, nobody could have possibly have known how important this work would prove to be. After all, they had no crystal ball with which to peer into the future. But that's the point, isn't it? Neither do we.

Professor King suggests that the imperative to focus on immediate problems arises from the unique challenges we face in the century to come. But the problems of this century are in many ways the same as those of the last - only more so.

The globe has been warming and the population exploding for more than 100 years. But it took a bunch of esoteric, self-indulgent scientists of the type Sir David is suggesting we do away with to wake us up to those facts.

Why do we spend money on space exploration and particle physics? It's not a bad question and there are plenty of good answers. But let's start with a better one. Why, when the Government talks repeatedly of the importance of science and the supply of scientists to the economy, does science and the funding of scientific research occupy such a minor position on the totem pole of political and budgetary priorities?

Or why does a former chief government scientist, at a time of crisis for the science community and world alike, choose to circle his wagons, form a stockade and shoot inward rather than out?

The Latin verb "scire" forms part of the etymological root of the word science. It means "to know", not "to profit" or "to solve" or "to save". The best thing that science can do at the start of this new and uncertain century is what it has always done: continue to ask questions, generate knowledge and pursue programmes that inspire and deliver the coming generations of scientists that our society will need, whatever the future holds.

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