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
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
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system to allow places that are currently not in the premier league to be promoted, and also to allow the ossified and out of date to be demoted.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.