Science's future is an interversity challenge

May 25, 2007

A truly global scientific world will have a unified research effort focused in a single institution, says Peter Atkins.

Universities have always been central to the furtherance of fundamental science and must remain at the forefront of globally significant research. Science is pre-eminently a global pursuit, for it deals with objective truth. It is transnational and, despite what sociologists claim, independent of the cultural milieu.

Any government has to accept that facilitating this economically fertile activity is one of its principal duties. That in part means money, for money allows a university to buy faculty on the global market, establish laboratories with the finest equipment, supply them with an army of students, provide an attractive environment for postdoctoral workers, and relieve them - within reason - of irksome duties. But for the most part, universities cannot afford to do this. And which government would have the guts to raid the national larder to help them?

One approach to encouraging the resurgence of internationally acclaimed science would be to establish half-a-dozen institutes of advanced research spanning the sciences, embedded in two or three of our most respected universities. They would be expensive at first but would pay for themselves within a decade or two. And "embedded" is the key term. These institutes should be planted in universities that already have a global presence.

When viewed from this perspective, the UK has only two such universities, and if the Government wanted to build on strength and invest in quality it would have to swallow its prejudices, invest most of its funds in Oxford and Cambridge, and watch them become paramount leaders of academic Europe.

Any other approach, except for the inclusion of Imperial College, would be an inappropriate dilution of resources. Yes, a handful of other universities provide a brilliant corona to these institutions, but bullets must be bitten.

There are other, cheaper, models. In a truly global scientific world, there would be no identifiable institutions. In the extreme, there would be a single "interversity" and a single unified global scientific endeavour.

This model is already emerging as scientists establish collaborations that span the world.

The emergence of the interversity will be driven by a variety of factors.

The carrot will be internet facilities that provide ever-greater personal presence to the point where scientists seem to be present with their colleagues wherever they are. The development of manipulative techniques already used in surgery and the nuclear industry diminishes further the role of being in a particular location. The stick that will drive this distance-science is the increasing unpleasantness, impact and cost of travel.

The interversity will face obstacles. Globalised research could bring in its train a globalised research assessment exercise, a procedure already distorting the pursuance of long-term research and consuming the energies of researchers in the UK. But if research money is to be applied globally, then a globally acceptable assessment procedure must be in place. That will be a dangerous time for science, for "international" has always been virtually synonymous with "heavy-handed and bureaucratic"; and obligations to treat contributing countries equally has meant that political necessity displaces real talent. The consequent danger is that mediocre, safe, democratised science will be encouraged at the expense of brilliant individual innovation.

There will always be a need for new brains. But provided the quality of our undergraduate courses survives the attrition of underfunding and the ceaseless nibbling away of intellectual commitment in our schools, we can draw increasingly from the international well of talent, not necessarily by encouraging their actual presence but by the development of distance learning. Universities are already considering how to extend their individual campus experience to markets overseas and should consider how the interversity can effectuate instruction as well as collaboration for research.

In short, the internet is the opportunity for science in universities. It enhances the reach of the human mind by providing a cheap, readily accessible mode of collaboration, with connected, collaborating brains greater than the sum of the parts. Science, increasingly reliant on computation, is ideally suited to the distribution of effort over a global interversity, and the sense of global effort should stimulate the young to become part of this remarkable endeavour.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry at Oxford University. The article is adapted from his contribution to Can the Prizes Still Glitter? The Future of British Universities in a Changing World , compiled by the think-tank Agora and published by the University of Buckingham Press, £15.99.

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