What has science done for me?

Life can be good at throwing curved balls at one from time to time. It is how we manage these curved balls which is of importance. Today I learnt after a quick look at twitter that my entry into the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize has not been successful.

Congratulations to all those who have been short listed. Being a writer, one has to get use to rejection. However there is always another story to tell and second guessing what judges of writing competitions are looking for is akin to working out weather patterns; chaos is at play and outcomes are very unpredictable.

Below you will find my entry into the competition…

Title: What ‘like the Romans’, has science ever done for me?

As debates over science funding cuts continue, “MPs criticise severe cuts to astronomy and particle physics funding” [1], the Guardian, May 13th, 2011, I would propose a thought experiment in the form of a question: Why should we care if all life is wiped out in an instance by an unobserved asteroid that comes hurtling into our planet?

The current set of physics and astronomy science funding debates started prior to April 2008, with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announcing cuts due to a deficit of £80 million, following the then government’s spending review [2].

On 24th June 2010, the Guardian published an article by Mr Simon Jenkins entitled “Martin Rees makes a religion out of science so his bishops can gather their tithe” [3]. In a nutshell, this article suggests that science has to justify its expenditure in the light of cuts being made to other services. A rebut was published in the Guardian on 30th June, by Mr Imran Kahn director of “the Campaign for Science and Engineering”, who summed up science’s part in society within the article’s title: “Science’s success is society’s gain. We are not motivated by money” [4].

One can see both sides of the argument with the arts being important for mental well being and cultural value, and science with its application in technology, providing advances in our everyday life that we take for granted, such as: electronic communication, microwave ovens, medicine to fight bacterial infection. It should not be forgotten that the arts use and to a great extent rely on scientific and technological developments, such as television and the Internet for media broadcasts.

The recent science funding debates, notably by non-scientists, have focused on all science being placed into one realm, ‘science’. Science like any branch of human endeavour also has specialist areas of interest. It is the same with the ‘arts’, from drawing through to playwriting and beyond. With certain media outlets focusing on the word ‘science’, this introduces an element of smoke and mirrors. By using the general “science” label, stereotyping and communication issues can arise.

A letter to the Guardian on the 16th May discusses university science funding cuts while the Coalition Government will continue to fund the new St. Pancras biomedical research centre [5]. This is good news if you are in the science field of biotechnology, but not if you are an astronomer or particle physicist.

So why should non-scientists care about science funding? Well it is not just a case of biomedical laboratories gaining while astronomers and particle physicists lose out; we all lose. Mr Imran Kahn points out in his article on 30th June, “Science’s success is society’s gain…” that “nearly a third of Britain’s GDP is produced by science-based sectors”. Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark Welport, gave a stark warning about the science budgetary cuts in an article by Mr Alok Jha, the Guardian, 7th October 2010, “Science funding cuts: We won’t fill the gaps, say firms and charities” [6].

Although the Coalition Government may agree that science is important, their collective message seems to be more rhetorical noise abatement rather than supporting all branches of science. Parts are cherry picked where short-term gain can be seen within ten to twenty years. Without all branches of science, technological research and development being adequately funded, future innovations will be hampered. Individuals may come up with some great ideas or inventions, but without public money, those ideas may stay on the drawing board or end up in a science fiction story.

Science is more than data and facts; there are also cultural and creative aspects. For example, Sir James Dyson’s ‘Dual Cyclone technology’ vacuum cleaner [7] is a product of beauty as well as a functional dust-busting tool; thinking outside of ‘the box’ is a good thing.

Scientific research undertakes the tasks of investigating: why we are here; what we, the stars and planets are made of; where the missing mass of the observable universe has gone; where do fundamental particles like the neutrino go to most of the time, why is the Sun at the centre of the Solar System, etc. All science branches have one thing in common: Scientific methodology. For science is not only the search for truth and knowledge, its methodology also integrates and corrects previous knowledge.

There are always unforeseen consequences to actions; this includes budgetary cuts to scientific research. By reducing funding to astronomy, amateur data on a possible asteroid collision may not be verified. It only takes a small nudge for one of the many asteroids surrounding the Solar System’s inner planets to come hurtling towards us.

Global warming, crude oil running out, asteroid impact… science provides us with interesting and life altering issues to explore. Cuts to certain branches of scientific research may not affect us now, but they will undoubtedly affect all of life’s descendants on our planet.

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/may/13/mps-astronomy-particle-physics-funding
  2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7373940.stm
  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/24/rees-makes-religion-out-of-science
  4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/30/science-funding-lobby-religion
  5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/may/16/unwanted-research-lab-st-pancras
  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/oct/07/science-funding-cuts-firms-charities
  7. http://www.dyson.co.uk/about/story/default.asp?searchType=story&story=jamesdyson
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