Podium: Scientists must come out of their ghetto

From a lecture by the director of the Save British Science Society to the Anatomy Postgraduate Society, University College London

THIS TALK is about present and future trends in British science, and I must do something about trying to predict the future. Humans are rather keen on foretelling things, but before I indulge in any predictions, I had better show a little humility and acknowledge that they have a pretty poor record for accuracy.

For the past 300 years, Britain's influence has waned, and its scientific influence has had a particularly bad time. In 2001, the total investment by the UK government in research and development will be about 17 per cent lower than it was 20 years ago. Funding for policy-driven studies has fallen and the proportion of the British workforce engaged in science has also fallen, while it has climbed in France, Canada and Italy.

A similar pattern can be seen in the field of education, where an increasing proportion of our cleverest people are cutting themselves off from a scientific career at a very early stage.

Scientists, especially academic researchers in the science base, are badly paid. Statistics compiled in 1993, show that the average doctor earned pounds 780 per week, while the average manager, police inspector and solicitor all earned more than pounds 600 per week. Scientists, on the other hand, earned only about pounds 460 per week, less than accountants and architects. It is true that academics have certain freedoms not shared by many in the private sector, and that may be worth a lot to some people, but even those freedoms have been gradually eroded in recent years.

All of these concerns - reduced funding, dubious educational standards, poor salaries and so on - create a single problem. Many sensible people are now worried about the quality of the British science base in the future. I am supposed to be talking about the future, and I want to look now at two processes that I see developing at the moment, and in the next few months and years.

The first is the process of selectivity, and the targeting of research funds. There are constantly moves afoot to increase this level of selectivity, and it may seem a good idea to invest in places of excellence. But there must be flexibility in the system to allow places that are currently not in the premier league to be promoted, and also to allow the ossified and out of date to be demoted.

Roughly speaking, the difference between research councils and funding councils is that funding council money is for the university to use in its own way, and research council money is distributed by committees for particular projects. There is no such thing as an innovative committee, it is a contradiction in terms, so the funding council money is essential for the new and ground-breaking research that invents whole new fields.

The second process concerns the matter of public attitudes. If you ever look at the newspapers, you will know that public attitudes towards science and scientific matters are more important than ever.

My own belief is that the problem of public perceptions is one of isolation. Partly through the professionalisation of science, individual scientists have have become isolated in some sense from business, from government and from the wider public.

It seems to me that there is a broad trend for people to be suspicious of "science" as a thing, but generally trustworthy of "scientists" where they are seen as individual people, who happen to have the same hopes, fears and families as everyone else. This is manifest in the media by what I choose to call the ghettoisation of science. The science pages of the newspapers, or the specialist science programmes on television, are very good, but that pro-science bias does not pervade the current affairs coverage or the leader columns. The science coverage is restricted to its own special ghetto.

In some senses this isolation is a modern phenomenon. Modern scientists may feel isolated from the world of business; and many modern scientists appear to be isolated from the government. But the greatest tragedy in my opinion, is that so many scientists seem to be distanced from the public.

But the future of British science can be rosy if we choose to make it so. As our careers develop, we must engage with the public, with politicians and with the world of business. We must take a little time to prevent ourselves from becoming insular and isolated.

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable