When I was a child, it seemed as if Sir Bernard Lovell was always on TV or the radio. He appeared to be the principal spokesman for science and its excitements. Using the telescope Sir Bernard commanded at Jodrell Bank, astronomers could reach out to the farthest corners of the universe (if it had corners). The UK was in the forefront of the march towards the frontiers of knowledge.
Sir Bernard is still with us, enjoying a happy and distinguished old age. Yet there is a grim irony. He has lived long enough to see his life's work under threat. The government is proposing to close Jodrell Bank, as part of a series of cuts which will ensure that the UK is no longer anywhere near the forefront of astronomy. In all this, we are dealing with cultural change, which is a complex question – and with cultural vandalism, which is a scandal.
First, the change. In 1961, when Bernard Lovell was knighted, the reputation of science was at its apogee. Whether the subject was medicine, space travel or the prospects for the computer, it was widely assumed that scientists were mankind's benefactors. In Britain, the Left tried to associate itself with scientists and their prestige. Harold Wilson talked about the white heat of technology. He told us that he would bring a scientific approach to government and industry.
The electorate was invited to contrast Labour – classless, progressive, dynamic – and the Tories, a clique of superannuated imperialists who had retreated from the modern world to the grouse more. If anyone had suggested to Harold Wilson that one day a Labour government would close down Jodrell Bank, he would have dismissed the notion with scorn and for once, he would have been sincere.
So what went wrong? Perhaps it was all Peter Sellers' fault. One moment, the scientist is a distinguished figure in a lab coat, trying to understand the universe: next moment, he is Dr Strangelove in a flapping white coat, trying to destroy the planet. Over the past 50 years, the march of science has continued. If the rest of us can find the right political structures to rein man's destructive impulses, science will provide the infrastructure to enable the human race to live far longer in much better health, greater numbers and greater prosperity than most science fiction writers would ever have predicted. Yet public debate seems to focus exclusively on science's negative capabilities.
They exist. Nuclear power could provide abundant energy: nuclear weapons could make Dr Strangelove's fantasies come true. Genetically modified crops could finally eliminate the threat of starvation which has menaced man from the beginning (unless you believe in the Garden of Eden) and which is now increasing because of higher agricultural prices. But testing is necessary. The Prince of Wales is right to warn of the dangers, just as long as he also accepts that the human race cannot feed itself solely on Duchy originals.
Science ought to be fairly scrutinised. Instead, there is an exclusive concentration on risk. It would be a misdiagnosis to regard this as a rational process. The attack on science is part of a general descent into unreason, sentimentality and hysteria which has afflicted western public life over the past few decades.
As a result, British medical researchers who experiment on animals live under threat, Greenpeace regards itself as entitled to commit vandalism with impunity, Britain's nuclear power programme is 10 years less advanced than it ought to be – and British astronomy faces destruction.
This could not have happened in a period when the public approach to scientific matters was more balanced. The immediate problem arose because the research council which funds astronomy and physics has got itself into a mess. Although it has not been required to make cuts, it is facing a £100m shortfall. Eighty million of that is to fall on astronomy. If this is indeed the outcome, the UK's contribution to global astronomical research will be at a tiny fraction of its late-Fifties level.
Whitehall is awash with consultants, most of whom are trying to find out what the previous lot of consultants did and what happened to the review of reviews which they were supposed to be reviewing. The Gershon report, commissioned by this government, identified £70m of public sector waste. A little over 0.1 per cent of that would save Jodrell Bank and remove the threat to British astronomy.
It is possible to argue that the pure sciences make no direct contribution to increasing national wealth. In a narrow sense, that might be true – but so narrow as to be nonsensical. Though it is impossible to quantify, the proximity of pure scientists and applied scientists has a quickening effect. From Cambridge to California, science parks benefit from their associations with universities. Although Bill Gates never went to university, he employs tens of thousands of researchers who did and whose work has been sharpened because of their links with pure scientists. Countries that are good at hard science enjoy the spin-offs.
That point should be self-evident, but not to a government in the grip of spin-doctors. Neither Gordon Brown nor Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, lack intellectual interests. Both of them benefited from a good education; both of them believe in real education, which includes the hard sciences. So why are they colluding in educational and cultural vandalism?
Britain is now a post-manufacturing economy. We will have to make our living out of service industries, which include the knowledge-based ones. In so doing, we will be competing with India, China and other countries which are devoting large and increasing resources to serious education. If they had anything like Jodrell Bank, they would never dream of closing it down.
It may be that the research council has made a mess of things and there is a further difficulty, replicated throughout government. For several years, ministers poured money into the public sector without ensuring that it was effectively spent. A lot of public bodies grew accustomed to to constantly rising annual budgets, and assumed that if they ever did have a problem, the public cheque book would come to their rescue. Well, as Alistair Darling will have to admit on Wednesday if his budget is to have any contact with reality, the era of profligacy is over. But this does not justify the destruction of vital national assets.
A country which allows its education priorities to drift away from hard science is a country which is embracing decadence. If this goes on, then in 20 years time, the wife of a Chinese astronomer who is attending a conference at a British university – the British are so good at tourism: what a pity they no longer have any astronomers – will have her hair cut by a media studies graduate who is now doing a second degree in hairdressing at the local university. The hairdressing department is located in what used to be the astronomy building. Though that may sound like a nightmare, It is more realistic than Dr Strangelove.Reuse content