Physicists hit back at king after call for scientists to focus on 'immediate' problems

September 18, 2008

Scientists mounted a robust defence of funding for fundamental research at the annual Festival of Science organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) in Liverpool last week.

Sir David King, the former government chief scientist, caused a stir at the festival when he suggested in his BA presidential address that scientists should be working to solve immediate problems such as climate change and sustainability, rather than exploring space travel and particle physics.

The remarks, provocative in the week the Large Hadron Collider was launched, gave added spice to a scheduled debate, "Blue-skies research or grey skies ahead - the future of science funding".

Dave Wark, president of the physics and astronomy section of the festival, opened with a strong attack on Sir David, saying his comments were "naive".

He said that a proposed particle physics experiment in the United States, the Superconducting Supercollider, "was strangled before birth, with one of the reasons given being that the resources would be better spent on exactly the kinds of research into new technologies Sir David desires.

"Of course the hoped-for uplift in other physical sciences-funding never appeared and the money vanished into tax cuts for the rich and the sands of Iraq. I have little doubt that the same would happen again if the ill-considered decision were made to de-emphasise fundamental science (in the UK)."

Another particle physicist, Ken Peach, from the University of Oxford, said: "It's convenient for the administration of science to divide it into various disciplines, but in reality they are not as well defined as we imagine. Science is not a series of separate disciplines each developing, but a unified front spreading out into the unknown.

"In the short term, stopping investment in some fundamental science - say particle physics - may have little effect on the life sciences or medicine, but sooner or later these apparently unrelated sciences will be retarded as a result."

Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, was less critical of Sir David: "I think he has just looked at the field of particle physics and Cern and asked 'why can't we have the same focus applied to climate change?'."

Matt Rooney

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