'It's hard to work in the UK, here there's a fresh attitude'

Neil Turok, who left Cambridge for Canada, tells John Gill what ails British science and universities

February 19, 2009

Almost a year ago, Neil Turok announced that he was leaving the University of Cambridge, where he had worked alongside Stephen Hawking for 11 years, to move to Canada.

He didn't go quietly: as he left, he gave a scathing account of the problems blighting British academia in general and science in particular.

But now that the professor of mathematical physics has settled into his new post as director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, based in Waterloo, Ontario, have his views of a sector throttled by red tape and hobbled by underfunding mellowed at all? The short answer is "no".

"It's amazing to have come to a place that has such fresh attitudes, unencumbered with the history and tradition of the UK," Professor Turok said.

"British science has become very project-oriented. You have to say, 'in the next three years I am going to hit milestones one, two and three'.

"That means you have to know that what you are doing is going to work in advance, which makes for very dull science.

"Combined with the general underfunding and deprioritisation of basic science, as opposed to the trendy applied science that the Government and universities are moving strongly towards, the UK is now a difficult environment to work in."

'Lack of vision'

Professor Turok is fiercely critical of Whitehall's approach to science, which he said is marred by a "lack of vision" and a clear plan.

"It seems to me that the people who are making the decisions about science funding are not really passionate about science themselves.

"I am not saying that they have to be scientists - that would be self-serving in a way - but you need people in the Government who believe in science and what it can do."

He has also found that the private sector is willing to back basic science in Canada, something he said is sorely lacking in the UK.

"I know of few occasions when the private sector has invested in basic science in the UK. It's always driven by producing a gadget or something to sell," he said.

"Over here in this new and very high-tech community, people have made huge fortunes on the basis of knowledge and being smart, and that's what they like."

And there's no shortage of passion for science, no lack of faith in its importance.

"People have a belief that basic science is going to be important for the future of humanity; it is not just about understanding the world but creating the technologies of the next 100 years. That's very exciting but it's also challenging, because it means that we have to deliver something that lives up to people's expectations."

Professor Turok also had criticism for his former employer, the University of Cambridge, which he left after growing frustrated that his proposals for a Stephen Hawking Institute for Theoretical Physics, along the lines of the institute he now leads in Canada, were ignored.

"The Perimeter Institute is how I imagine Cambridge was in the 13th century, when someone was designing a system from scratch in the optimal way.

"After 800 years, it has built up a huge amount of tradition and bureaucracy." Just getting a new course on the books nowadays takes "Herculean effort", he said.

"Are the colleges really a hub of intellectual activity today? I think maybe the top three are, but I am not sure about the rest ... there's a fair amount of mediocrity."

Professor Turok's advice to his former institution is to rediscover the value of self-criticism.

"The only hope for it remaining a leading force in the world of academia is for it to constantly look at what is good and what is not good.

"Perhaps my greatest unhappiness in Cambridge was that it was not sufficiently self-critical," he said. "There is a tendency to say, 'We're great and we'll always be great.'"

More generally, he warned of trouble ahead for the UK higher education sector's global standing.

He said: "Hawking's chair (the Lucasian chair of mathematics, Cambridge) is the most prestigious in British academia. It has just been advertised, but you have to ask: is it an attractive position?

"I am not sure it is, partly because the pound has collapsed, so salaries are not competitive."

Dinner is not enough

For example, Harvard and Cambridge are among the top universities in the world, yet a Harvard professor earns three times more than a Cambridge one, he said.

"How long can you compete at that level? I don't think you can hang on to people on the basis of college dinners alone."

But Professor Turok does not believe it is all doom and gloom.

"I think the UK is an amazing country. It is very welcoming to international people and its tradition is second to none.

"If only it would realise its amazing advantages and make the most of them, I think things could be recovered."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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