Letter: Peace dividend's boost for science

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The Independent Online
Sir: An inevitable consequence of the virtual ending of the Cold War is the run-down in the defence industries. It is tragic, though, that skills in high technology, clearly bought over the past few decades, are being lost through the laying off of staff.

One way in which at least some of the skills are preserved is through our expenditure on the so-called 'big sciences'. It is very relevant to make this point now, when the Government's White Paper on Science and Technology is nearing completion. Big science, indeed all science, has been under considerable pressure for some time, but the need to preserve our mandatory subscriptions to such international facilities as CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research) and the European Space Agency (ESA) has meant that the funds left over for the utilisation of these facilities have diminished to the extent where they are approaching the point of non- cost-effectiveness - from the UK's standpoint, at least.

This is where the space-defence industry comes in. Our ESA subscription carries with it the principle of juste retour, ie the funds must be spent in British industry. It is generally agreed that this injection into British industry is cost-effective, in the sense that there is a multiplying factor for industry, that is, orders in other areas flow from the skills developed in supplying the sophisticated needs of the space researchers. For ESA contracts the factor appears to be in the range 3-5. Funds spent on high-energy physics at CERN also have a significant multiplying factor.

Funds for these areas of science would, both for subscription and utilisation, using some of the peace dividend, help to preserve the industry's skills for the future. It is vital to maintain Britain's contribution to the generation of new knowledge - a prerequisite for a developed nation.

Yours sincerely,

A. W. WOLFENDALE

Astronomer Royal

Department of Physics

University of Durham

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