Come on, celebrate!

January 2, 2004

Rugby got us dancing in the streets, so why can't we revel in science? asks Peter Cotgreave

If the Beagle 2 lander had worked as planned after reaching Mars last week, it would have had to calibrate its ability to recognise colours using a painting by artist Damien Hirst, who has become part of a celebratory culture in the British art world. We have even invented the word Britart to commemorate the work of such artists.

And in sport, too, the British have rediscovered the art of celebration.

Being Welsh, it is hard for me to admit that, once my team was knocked out, I cheered on the English rugby team in the world cup. But that final drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson earned him and his team-mates the right to a victory parade, tea with the Queen and a televisual extravaganza that gloried in the nation's success.

So why aren't we shouting from the rooftops about our scientific successes? When Colin Blakemore was recommended for a knighthood, faceless bureaucrats decided that because he has performed experiments on animals, he must wait for his "reputation to be improved".

When Sir Peter Mansfield won a share of the Nobel Prize for medicine a few weeks ago, there was about half a day's interest from the media. The big story became that of how American scientist Raymond Damadian paid for full-page advertisements in newspapers around the world claiming that he should have been awarded a share of the prize for his own pioneering work on magnetic resonance imagery.

"We'd rather lose than look a prat like Dr Damadian," blustered Boris Johnson in The Daily Telegraph .

But we didn't lose. Our man won. If we had concentrated on the main issue instead of being snooty about Damadian, perhaps the Queen would have got around to inviting Britain's surviving Nobel laureates for tea, and television channels would film a celebration of their outstanding achievements.

In recent times, Beagle 2 is almost unique among scientific achievements in being widely celebrated. Even if it does not accomplish its mission, the project managed to capture our imagination, not because the lander is being used as a temporary Martian art gallery to display Hirst's latest effort but partly because it gives the BBC graphics department a chance to show off its skill, and partly because of the infectious and unstoppable enthusiasm of Colin Pillinger, who gathered together the consortium that designed and built Europe's first Martian lander.

The public obviously loves it, as it does whenever the media gives it the chance to celebrate home-grown scientific achievement. Darwin, Newton and Brunel all garnered enough votes in a public poll to make it into the top ten "Great Britons". No sportsmen or painters were awarded such an accolade, and only one writer (Shakespeare) made the list.

So why have the Queen and prime minister Tony Blair not yet invited our greatest scientists and engineers round for a bash that is so cool that everyone wants to gatecrash? No doubt it is partly the fault of a media obsessed with minor stars of soap operas and second-division footballers you've never heard of. It may equally be that the political establishment still feels threatened by an academic world it doesn't understand. That would certainly account for Blair's "humorous" response to a report about astronomers' concerns regarding light pollution.

But it is probably as much the fault of the research community, which should do more to talk up its own successes. It would be possible to celebrate our achievements without sinking to the embarrassing depths of Damadian's self-aggrandising efforts.

Many people say that the name of pressure group Save British Science sounds very negative, but, to me, it could not be more positive. It presupposes that there is something worth saving. And there truly is. British science has not only a great track record, but also an outstanding present and a potentially exciting future.

We should celebrate it more.

Peter Cotgreave is director of Save British Science.

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