It’s days like this that I worry for the future of science in the UK…
Sure, Sir David King is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK government, but the opinions he voiced on last week’s BBC Newsnight airing caught my breath. If his short-sighted and ill informed ideas are indicative of the UK government’s science funding strategy, I’d suggest all UK-funded particle physicists pack up and move to Europe or the US.
In the aftermath of the LHC grand event on Wednesday, outspoken Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman was joined by King and the ever impressive Professor Brian Cox. The topic focused on how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will benefit mankind. As the media had been buzzing about the event for weeks, it was great to see a leading news opinion program set aside six minutes for a particle physics debate.
And what a debate it was! Let’s put it this way, Brian Cox got pretty irritated by King’s point that “brilliant people” should be attracted into other challenges to mankind, rather than focusing their attention on “navel searching” projects like the LHC. Brian’s response was awesome…
This Newsnight debate had an eerie similarity to a conversation I had in a campus pub a few years ago. At the time, I was studying for my masters in astrophysics, and I was pretty engrossed in the subject. Sure enough, the inevitable question popped up when I was chatting to a group of interpol students over a pint of Guiness, “Why the hell should we put billions into the space programme when we could be investing that money into aids research, finding a cure for cancer, helping the homeless, eradicating famine and drought in Africa…?” I always felt uncomfortable trying to justify why I was interested in space science, so I’d often shy away and avoid the debate.
But not on this particular rainy Welsh night.
It might have been the beer talking, or it might have been that I thought I’d reached a point in my studies that I could debate the subject well enough to defend it – either way I got angry. Not the kind of angry that would result in a pool cue and beer bottle fight; it was the kind of angry that would result in a heated, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful argument when trying to convince a head-strong politics student that space flight could actually lead to developing new technologies. These technologies could create spin-off applications to improve the treatment of aids, fight cancer, deliver food to the starving and provide shelter to people who need it.
I surprised myself. This was good. I was having a debate with a bunch of people who hadn’t realised the importance of space flight. Ultimately, I don’t think I changed any of their minds, but I think I made a huge leap from studying how the Universe works to understanding how these endeavours help mankind.
So, on reading Gia’s blog and finding the Newsnight recording of Brian Cox and David King, I was excited to watch one of the first interviews after the LHC had been turned on. I was a little surprised to say the least, especially after listening to the former science adviser say:
“This money was spent on curiosity-driven research which may… conceivably… have some impacts on our well-being in the future. I suspect it won’t. I think we’ve probably driven this type of research far enough that it’s now more navel searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind.” – Sir David King, Former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government (2000-2007)
Ultimately, King was excited to see what the LHC will discover, but in his opinion, the LHC experiment was simply a curiosity-driven piece of kit and not something that will find anything of importance.
What? Is this person on the same planet? The guy who advised the UK government on scientific funding for seven years and current President of the British Association of the Advancement of Science thinks that the biggest experiment ever built by the international community is merely out of curiosity and has little bearing on the advancement of humanity?
According to King, we already know all we need to know about fundamental particles and we should focus our efforts on finding defined solutions to things like climate change, aids and other more pressing human concerns. (And the memories of my university debate came flooding back to me.)
Thank goodness Brian Cox was on the scene to fire back at these limited opinions on scientific endeavour. Brian points out that there are endless spin-offs to the technology behind LHC development. From the cooling technology behind fusion power plants to developing new ways to combat brain tumours, the science we are developing the probe the inner workings of the Universe has a vast number of applications, not limited to simply discovering the Higgs Boson (as Sir King would have us believe).
There is a wonderful moment in the debate when King argues that scientists should be attracted to other projects (like finding a solution to climate change). Cox’s disbelief is very clear (pictured top) as he fires back saying that LHC researchers are in fact working on other projects as a matter of necessity.
To top the whole debate off, Paxman (deliberately or mistakenly – either is just as good) says at the start of the recording, “…apologies for calling it the Hay-dron Collider the other night, pure ignorance.” Normally I’d consider this a throwaway remark, but 3:05 minutes into the recording, we see what Paxman might be really referring to (listen to King’s pronunciation of “hadron”).
If one of the most prominent science advisers in recent history is indeed this ignorant of the science behind the LHC, it is a concern that UK physics may not be on the right track after all…
Keep up the great work Brian, you’re showing the world what physics is really about and what physicists are really made of!
Source: Gia’s Blog