We can think. Now we must do

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The Independent Online
IN A nutshell, William Waldegrave's problem is that Alan Sugar is not Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The former is a clever businessman producing the cheapest consumer applications of risk-free, largely foreign technology. The latter was a heroic genius of design and engineering, creating his own technology on the job and taking breathtaking risks, most of which came off. The problem is that we see ourselves as a nation of Brunels, whereas the best hope we have is that we become a nation of Sugars - niche exploiters of the technology of the Pacific Rim and the United States.

Even at the level of the purer, higher sciences, this discontinuity of our historical self-image with our present capability persists. We understand British science as a glorious straight line from Newton to Rutherford, a world- beating enterprise conducted by strong-willed men of fabulous intellect. Professor Quatermass, brilliant, pigheaded, lives on. Yet, in the real world, it is no longer like that. Ingenious we remain, but on the fringes; certainly picking up Nobel prizes, but appreciated only as a kind of useful sideshow to the main events.

It is this contrast between a great past and an irritatingly modest present that lies behind the hopes and almost certain disappointment accompanying William Waldegrave's White Paper on Science and Technology, to be published today. We should be able to do so much, yet we appear to be able to do so little. Once we built great bridges and ships and split the atom, but now the world wants VCRs, CD-ROM and industrial robots, and these we cannot seem to manage.

Waldegrave's strategy will be to put pressure on the science establishment to be practical, to feed the wealth creators with new ideas and applications. The dream is of a public-private corporatism, an MIT or Silicon Valley vision of brilliant graduates spewing out of the universities to set up new, hi-tech companies. But for a British Government now, it can only be a wish - there is no money and the best the minister can do is express pious hopes and shuffle committees in the hope that this will enforce the correct attitude. Campaigners will continue to claim that Mr Waldegrave is destroying British science.

One could, at this point, launch into the obvious structural handicaps - the short-termism of British industry and the City of London, or the under-skilled workforce. But the real problem is, of course, cultural.

Hanging over all British science like an immense tree is the figure of Isaac Newton, conceivably the greatest intellect mankind has ever produced and, like Shakespeare, an overwhelming assertion that, as a nation, we have been the cradle of extraordinary genius. Newton was the symbolic godfather of an age in which Britain proved that not only could we think, we could also do.

This was a decisive combination. One of the reasons, it is often said, that only Europe could create modern science was this combination of practicality and intellect. The mandarins of the intellectually impressive but in practice largely inert Chinese science were pure thinkers. They would grow a single long fingernail to demonstrate how far removed they were from manual work. But Galileo made his own telescopes and Newton, for his optics experiments, ground lenses.

For the next 200 years the British flourished by thinking and doing with rare ingenuity. When it came to exploiting science, we were the first and the fastest, but, equally, we were the first to start worrying about it. From Wordsworth fretting about railways in the Lake District, to Ruskin's loathing of the aesthetic depravity of industrialisation, the British were the first to glimpse that science and technology had appalling side-effects. A gap began to open between the thinking and the doing. Scientists were caught between an aspiration towards clean, high culture and a need for low, dirty industry. Science had become, inevitably, a class issue.

This century the polarity intensified. In the donnish 'Two Cultures' confrontation, F R Leavis scorned science's cultural claims while C P Snow mourned the fact that arty types knew nothing of the second law of thermodynamics. They were both right: all knowledge is meaningless without the cultural setting that Leavis tried to defend and, equally, it is a disgrace for supposedly educated people not to understand the second law; it is, after all, one of the most easily grasped and imaginatively resonant of all scientific statements.

You could trace the story of Britain's 20th-century economic decline in the gap between thinking and doing. Throughout the century our failure to industrialise science and technology has been accelerating. We noticed it during the First World War and, by the Second, it was a national scandal. In the postwar years it has become a glum truism that we produce generations of brilliant, impractical men in white coats whose insights and innovations are routinely stolen and exploited by other nations. The 'brain drain' was a Sixties scare story, but in truth it did not matter whether brains were drained or not, we still did not seem able to do anything with what they were thinking.

The position now is acute. Science and technology are not aspects of economic performance, they are the heart and soul of economic performance, just as they are not aspects of the modern world, they are the environment in which we live. The rapid application of a good idea is the modern equivalent of striking gold or oil.

This is not necessarily a matter of high science, it is more a case of thinking in a way that is suffused by doing. So, for example, all Bill Gates had to do was notice that IBM needed a particular piece of software for its personal computers and then to produce it. With MS-DOS, Gates's Microsoft company has become bigger than IBM. Similarly, all Akio Morita had to do was notice that airliners' audio entertainment systems were no good and then to instruct his Sony company to create the Walkman, an irritating consumer product that possesses, nevertheless, a pristine conceptual perfection.

Meanwhile, back home we have a kind of neurotic fragmentation. When I produced a book last year - Understanding the Present - which questioned the rhetoric and triumphalist propaganda of modern science, the best the British scientific establishment could do was lapse into a frenzy of under-read arrogance.

They fell back on the quaint, 50- year-old creed that science was good for you, science was true and science was for the experts. It was like being at the Festival of Britain. The scientists omitted to notice the fact that without a living culture to contain it - as, for the moment, in Japan - science was also useless, nasty or dangerous.

Most significantly they also saw me as an agent of the Tory Government, preparing the way for cuts in research budgets. Poor Mr Waldegrave had to distance himself from my sentiments and now we have an awful PR fightback, stressing science as user- friendly. So Professor Steve Jones writes a vapid column in the Daily Telegraph about how science can really be 'fun' and Professor Stephen Hawking appears on BT advertisements with curious assertions about how wonderful it was that mankind 'discovered' language.

There are impacted levels of sad confusion concealed in this silliness. Promoting science as some kind of pure, virtuous entity, intrinsically and obviously good, is politically counter-productive and palpably false. It represents the decadent climax of the tradition that has separated thinking from doing. Because the progress of knowledge has been conceived by these people as a single, simple, inevitably forward movement, this progress has been isolated as the one ascertainable truth and value and therefore we must have more of it, irrespective of what it is for or what it means.

This kind of mind-set is encouraged by the genuine truth of the modern world - that applied science and technology is the one, the only thing that makes you competitively wealthy. But unfortunately, application is precisely what the mind-set does not encourage.

In this, as in everything else in the history of science and technology, we may be ahead of our time. The US is catching up with us in its output of silly scientific popularisers and propagandists. The physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, recently told readers of the New York Times that once we had a 'Theory of Everything', people would start to turn away from horoscopes. And the West as a whole is still keen on super-pure science projects like the space telescope, or particle colliders, on the basis that they contribute to that strange abstraction, the progress of knowledge.

It is possible to see in this the outlines of a great historical reversal. Once, practical Europe created science while the orientals pondered the indecipherable unity of the world. Now, the orientals are racing up the steep curve of science and technology's exponential growth, while, in the West, scientists are showing alarming signs of growing very long fingernails.