Leading article: How to make the best of British science

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The Independent Online
The annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, taking place this week, is usually an extraordinary mixture of serious science and "gee whiz" trivialities, of leading-edge results presented by world authorities and obscure presentations by professors who emerge blinking like moles only to disappear again into their labs for ever more. The festival's eclecticism has grown. In recent years social researchers have leapt on the bandwagon. As a consequence we get reports of recent work by economists and sociologists; some of it will be interesting but difficult to relate, either in rigour, method or significance to zoologists' tales of talking seals or the latest from the Human Genome Project.

The BA is in short a baggy compendium and the note of sheer fun it often sounds is no bad thing. The extensive newspaper coverage it generates reflects public interest, which goes beyond fascination with gimmicks and gadgets. It is tempting to conclude that, if this jamboree is any guide, British science is in fair shape.

Scientists themselves are unlikely to agree. For the BA is also their annual opportunity to plead for more money. This week we are going to hear again about the huge number of "alpha-rated" projects which get turned down by the Particle Physics and Astronomy or the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Councils. Margaret Beckett was invited to the BA yesterday not because she is especially interested in quarks and charms but because she is the scientists' paymaster, Labour showing no inclination to reverse the Tories' decision to place the research councils at the tender mercies of the Department of Trade and Industry. If past form is any guide, organisations such as Save British Science will announce doom is around the corner. Scientists have a point about the aggregate amount available for "pure" research but they are also in danger of exaggerating their case into incredulity.

There is a case for more money going into non-applied science - that is to say, the kind of science supported by the research councils - but it is one that needs to be made with more precision than the Royal Society and the British Association usually manage. The first thing to get over to the public is that nationalism is a very bad guide to science funding. British science is an oxymoron: knowledge advances internationally, the peer group of biologists and chemists in Cambridge or Newcastle-upon-Tyne includes Germans, Japanese and above all Americans. That is not an argument against national governments spending substantial amounts of public money on science. What it does say is that they and the scientists begging for grants need to recognise an international division of scientific labour. Particle colliders and human genome projects are not the only science that only gets done by means of international cooperation.

It is no tragedy if Britain ceases to be represented at the top table in certain fields or disciplines. Scientists, it is true, do not have access to the kind of "free" public money represented by the stimulating flows of lottery money into the arts. Generally they cannot turn to business or the big charities such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund except in utilitarian mode, proffering research that sooner or later will "work". But the case for public money for "blue skies" or theoretical work or research that simply advances knowledge can only convincingly be put if they have done ground-work, political and opinion forming, in persuading public and parliamentarians that the large expense of keeping up with the leading edge in certain discipines is a primary call on resources.

To be fair, the Royal Society did take the initiative; the resulting Public Understanding of Science programme has done good things - creating among other things some very effective science PRs. Science is well served by its cadre of specialist correspondents and popularisers who, generally speaking, cover the (simple science, complicated politics) Mir space station with as much aplomb as chaos theory. Indeed the idea that Britain is anti- science is hard to take seriously. Specific shortfalls in numbers of children coming forward to do physics A-level does not mean the end of the Enlightenment project as Newton knew it.

In that report on Britain's "brand identity", published yesterday by the Demos think-tank, much was rightly made of Britain's heritage of creativity, in science as in the arts. It is a tradition this government should foster, probably in excess of the pounds 1.3bn already committed to the science budget. If Sir Ron Dearing's arithmetic is right, existing budgets need augmenting to the tune of pounds 500m, a figure which in this season of (allegedly) comprehensive spending reviews ought not to be impossible to find. There is a quid pro quo from the science community. It is to lighten up and stop pretending that failure to fund all good projects amounts to intellectual vandalism. The fact is that science funding will have to get even more selective. The science community has to be prepared moreover to engage the public and their political representatives in the debate over British strengths, and weaknesses. If we are good at, say, (expensive) Antarctic science should we pretend to be as good at oceans or tectonics? Scientists find these discriminations hard to accept. The week of the BA may be a bad time to start, showcasing as it is does all manner of cognitive wares. But at some point soon, if scientists are to succeed in their financial quest, the engaging and valued group who turn up at the BA's annual meeting will need to appreciate that their business is actually not the advancement of science generally, but the advancement of science in certain spheres where British endeavour and expenditure can add usefully to the global enterprise of expanding our knowledge of the physical universe.