Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Cost of Appointing Science Ministers Who Have No Clue About Science

I recently read this article on The Times On Line. For somebody like me who, for some possibly weird reason, still feels for the future of British science despite having left Britain in 1994 (and officially in 1996), this article makes for depressing reading. What is even more depressing is that appointing science ministers who have no clue about the importance of science for a modern society is a rather widespread phenomenon. In this specific case, I was also amazed to read that

A series of elementary arithmetical errors generated a budget shortfall of £80m....

One can fund a lot of good science with that money!

In the article, Neil Turok is quoted as saying that: “It is ludicrous that Britain’s participation in some of the greatest scientific projects of today such as the search for dark matter, the hunt for the elementary particles like the Higgs Boson and the first detection of gravity waves, is subject to the whims of people with no special competence and little experience of these matters..... What it reflects is the failure of the political establishment to understand just how important science is for Britain’s future. Advanced research drives the quality of higher education, science and technology and generates invaluable spin-offs.” I am afraid that this true for many other countries too, alas.

What can we do about it? We should definitely do the best we can to make more people interested in science and to make the general public understand how important science is for our modern society. We should certainly stress the points raised by Turok. However, we should not forget to tell everyone how important the journey of discovery that is part and parcel of any scientific endeavour is. Doing science is a humbling experience and teaches us to be self-critical. As Socrates famously put it, a wise man is one who knows what he does not know. I wonder how many science ministers possess this type of wisdom Wink

For the record, Neil Turok is relocating to the Perimeter Institute in Canada, which he will direct from 1 October 2008. The Perimeter Institute is supported by £75m provided by Lazaridis (of Blackberry fame) and his colleagues, and £50m invested by the Canadian government and the state of Ontario. (I could not fail to notice that the budget shortfall of £80m would have helped support a similar centre in the UK.) Turok is one of the prime movers behind the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). He gave one of the TED prize talks 2008. IMHO, the talk is well worth watching and I, for one, hope that Turok's wish will come true in the not-so-distant future.

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