UNDER THE MICROSCOPE : The science of wealth creation

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There are certain topics I will not discuss either in public or in private. Some ideas are so silly that to discuss them implies that they are to be taken seriously. Why then, a friend inquired, was I prepared to debate with Terence Kealey, doctor and writer, his bizarre conviction that there should be no government funding of science? Kealey proposed his motion in a formal debate a few weeks ago, in a packed lecture theatre. This was my first surprise. Clearly, there were some who took this idea seriously.

Kealey's case rests upon his assertion that there is no simple linear relation between the funding of basic science and wealth creation. Research does not necessarily lead to new and moneymaking inventions. Here, I regret, I have to agree with him. The history of technology shows that until the late 18th century science had no impact at all on technology. The industrial revolution with the invention of the steam engine owed nothing to science. The bicycle, too, has not been designed using basic science - its success depends on the insights of clever mechanics.

Today it is all quite different. With so much technology dependent on science, the list is long, from the transistor to the very successful pharmaceutical industry. Even so, there are many complex steps from scientific knowledge to making money, not least the absolute requirement for industry and financial institutions to commit themselves. And here, it seems, lie the real culprits for the failure in Britain to properly exploit our enormous fund of scientific skills that governments have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, wisely funded. Our City moneylenders are renowned for their unwillingness to make long term investments and our industrial leaders, as far as applying science is concerned, are not much better. But it is also probably true that our scientists are not yet fully at home with the idea that they can actually make money from their ideas.

Thus a fundamental flaw in Kealey's case is that there is no logical link between his analysis of government spending on science and wealth creation, and whether the government should fund science. Worse, he operates under the extraordinary illusion that, in the absence of state funding, charities and industry will rush in to provide the money. It takes a more than elastic stretch of the imagination to visualise the tobacco industry providing funds to look at the effects of smoking on health, or animal feed producers together with the meat industry pouring money into ensuring that our meat is safe from nasty virus-like particles. Of course there are industries that do fund research into environmental pollution, but should we be quite content to accept their findings in the absence of independent research?

Wealth creation is a means, not an end, though Kealey's unashamed Thatcherism assumes it is. There is not much money to be made out of astronomy or the study of human evolution. But it would be awful to live in a society in which all scientific research were purely devoted to making money. I have a vested interest, as my own subject, how genes control the development of the embryo, could only have relevance to application on the very long term. But I could be very wrong. Remember that the whole of the current technology that enables DNA to be manipulated came from apparently obscure research into why some bacteria are resistant to some viruses.

Scientific understanding is the great triumph of our culture and cannot be left to market forces. If we followed Kealey who would train our young research workers and support the intellectual vigour of the universities? As Keith Pavitt, who opposed the motion, made clear, life in Kealey's Britain would be nasty, brief, and short. We won easily but there were as many as 20 present who voted in favour of Kealey's proposal. That was my second, and very upsetting, surprise.

! Lewis Wolpert of University College London, is chairman of Copus (the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science).