A land unfit for genius: British scientists no longer win Nobel prizes - a sign of growing philistinism in our culture, says Tom Wilkie

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The Independent Online
AT THE height of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, Antoine Lavoisier's friends tried to save him from the guillotine on the grounds that the discoverer of oxygen was probably the world's greatest living scientist. They were cut short, and Lavoisier's head cut off, with the remark: 'La Republique n'a pas besoin de savants' - the state has no need of scientists.

In Britain today, 15 years on from Margaret Thatcher's first election victory, there is no place for scientists in the new-right revolution she began. Last week's announcement of the 1994 Nobel prizes revealed that North Americans have scooped all the science awards yet again. Britain is no longer a serious scientific nation.

The graphs below show the shifting patterns of international excellence in science over the 93 years since the Nobel prizes were first awarded. In the early decades Germany led, but after the Second World War the United States rose swiftly to a position where it captured half the prizes, and its dominance has continued to grow. Britain remained an impressive second, until Mrs Thatcher came along. Her effect on our Nobel standing bears striking similarities to that of Hitler on German science. No scientist working in this country has received the Nobel prize since Sir James Black in 1988.

Last year a British-born scientist, Richard Roberts, did receive a Nobel prize, but he 'brain drained' to the US long ago. In physics, once the glory of British science (Chadwick, the Braggs, Cockcroft, Blackett, Ryle and others), this country's last prize-winner was Sir Nevill Mott, in 1977; in chemistry, there has not been a winner for 12 years, since Sir Aaron Klug in 1982.

And those British Nobellists who survive are without honour in their own country. Sir John Cornforth, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1975, has been denied money to do research. Unpaid, except for his pension, he works on in a laboratory made available to him gratis by the University of Sussex. But he has to pay for the chemical reagents and equipment he needs out of his own pocket. At the age of 77, he has to wash up his own laboratory glassware since he has been refused even the money to pay for a junior technician to help.

Nor is Sir John's position unique: Geoffrey Wilkinson (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1973) had his application for research funding turned down three times by the Science and Engineering Research Council, as it was then called. Strangely, money was found for him after his story appeared in the Independent last year.

Neither Professor Wilkinson nor Sir John filled out the application forms in the manner prescribed by the scientific bureaucracy, because they trusted their outstanding records to speak for them. And so they should have done. A Nobel prize is recognised by scientists worldwide as the nearest thing we have to a mark of genius. Certainly, some who deserve it do not win it, and occasionally it is won by someone who is not the most deserving, but no one wins it without having truly extraordinary gifts in science.

Sir John Cornforth started his scientific career by taking part in the wartime effort to make penicillin. He then became interested in how the human body makes complex organic molecules, particularly the sex hormones and cholesterol - a key component in cell walls and a precursor of testosterone and the female hormone estradiol. According to the Nobel prize citation, his elucidation of the steps in the process by which these vital molecules are made represented 'an outstanding intellectual achievement'. His achievement was all the greater since Sir John has been totally deaf since his early twenties.

In 1989, the SERC turned down Sir John's application for money to pay a junior technician for three years. Since his request had been for such a modest sum, he did not think it would be worthwhile to apply again. 'So when I happened in 1990 to discover a new process (since published in the open literature) which incidentally produced two valuable fine chemicals, I approached a friend in a large chemical company,' he said. In return for the chemicals, which were needed for a research project being carried out by a post- graduate student, 'the company paid into my research expenses account a total sum of pounds 2,825 and provided me with pounds 350-worth of research accessories from its catalogue'.

Someone studying for a PhD would get more money from the research councils for the purchase of chemicals. But Sir John continues work because he values 'the privilege of being able to do curiosity-driven research'.

Such values have little place in a White Paper published in May 1993. Written in the language of a second-rate MBA graduate, it demands that research councils issue 'mission statements' to 'make explicit their commitment to wealth creation'. The 'central thesis' of the White Paper was not a commitment to excellence but that science should be 'responsive to the needs of industry'. Not only Nobel prize-winners are surplus to requirement: the Government believes that we have a PhD mountain just as the European Union had wine lakes. PhDs, a 19th-century German invention, recognise that someone has had training in the methods of scientific research but the Government's concern is 'that the traditional PhD does not match up to the needs of an industrial research laboratory'.

One of the most cogent arguments for the utility of science was made more than 370 years ago by Francis Bacon. In the Novum Organum of 1620, he noted: 'Nor would any person, who had made woollen Manufactories and Cotton the subject of his observation and reflection, have ever discovered thereby the nature of the Silk- worm or of Silk.' Bacon was defending precisely the sort of 'curiosity-driven research' that Sir John Cornforth values so highly - and whose benefits, in the case of Sir John's discoveries about cholesterol, are obvious to us all.

This sort of science has always been a problem for those ideologically committed to a market economy, for its fruits are not commodities that can be bought and sold. Nobody can patent Newton's Law of Gravity or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Yet no engineer could build a bridge without knowing Newtonian dynamics, any more than today's 'information superhighway' would be possible without understanding the quantum mechanics of how optical signals are transmitted along fibre optic cables.

Science is necessary for commerce and industry, but commerce and industry will not pay for it. Governments must. And in countries with conservative - but less ideological - governments, such as Germany, they do. To match Germany's spending on civil science, the British government would have to find an extra pounds 5.3bn a year. Simply to match the proportion of gross domestic product would require a further pounds 2.5bn a year.

Does it matter that we no longer produce Nobel prize-winners? After all, the Japanese have done rather nicely while winning few Nobel prizes. Germany's post-war Wirtschaftswunder proceeded apace while the country's proportion of Nobel prizes was at an all- time low. Indeed, in the early 1980s, a study by the US Congressional Research Service found a negative correlation between numbers of Nobel prize-winners and the rate of economic growth.

But it is a peculiarly British perversion of logic to believe that if we have no Nobel prize-winners, our economic performance will improve. Ultimately, that the question could be asked at all is a symptom of impoverishment. Britain was once a place where genius flourished and was cherished as something valuable in itself. It appears no longer to be so.

Science is, to adapt an aphorism from Jacob Bronowski, the greatest collective work of art in the 20th century. This country once made outstanding contributions to modern culture. That it is too poor to do this any more, and that no one appears to care, reveals a nation that has lost confidence in its sense of civilisation.

(Photograph omitted)

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