Beatrix Willimont recounts the CaSE annual lecture, contemplating the current and future success of science in Britain
On the 27th of January, the CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering) annual lecture with the Minister of State for Universities and Science, the newly elected Jo Johnson (brother to Boris) took place at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
CaSE is the “leading independent advocate for Science and Engineering in the UK” and its mission is “to raise the political profile of Science and Engineering” in Britain. 2016 sees CaSE’s 30th Birthday and the opening speaker was sure to remind the audience of the scientific significance of the institution in which we sat. Over its 217 years of history, minds as brilliant as Michael Faraday, Kathleen Lonsdale, Pierre and Marie Curie have presented their work in that very building. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss the future of science in Britain. The general consensus on how this should be accomplished? Investment, immigration and education.
The quality of British science vastly outweighs our size as a nation
So, what does the future of British science look like? The key facts, figures and developments for British STEM show that our global scientific impact far exceeds our size as a nation. We have just 3.2% of the world’s research and development spend, but 15.9% of the most cited research articles and we rank first in field weighted citations. Therefore, the government is committed to continuing to invest £4.7 billion per year for the rest of its time in office as well as £20 million (in addition to £10 million from the Wellcome Trust) to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists and engineers. STEM university undergraduate numbers are also up by 5%, a promising sign. There was an interesting point raised about how school science text books do not inspire and show the potential of science enough. Hopefully something can be done to show school students that SOHCAHTOA can lead to so much more than an A* in GCSE maths.
Homegrown innovations such as liquid graphene, which supposedly looks like coca-cola, could completely revolutionise our use of materials, and the Raspberry Pi, a tiny affordable computer that you can use to learn programming, are just two examples of the cutting edge technology the UK is spawning. Science and innovation must therefore remain at heart of the current governments’ economic plan, says Johnson. Apparently, funding cuts in other areas are helping allow the continued funding of science. So, you may no longer be able to afford your house, but hey, at least you can now afford to learn how to program from the park bench where you now have to live!
Leaving the EU could hinder UK STEM work
The belief that ‘Brexit’ would harm the continued progress of Science and Engineering in Britain proved a recurring theme. If Britain were to leave the EU, it could make it a lot more difficult for leading UK universities to attract the best European minds. So, if there is anything substantial for the average Jo (no pun intended) to take from this event it’s that when we are finally given our referendum on the EU, spare a thought for the brightest scientific minds who come to the UK’s STEM work so brilliant that even Bill Gates deems it worthy of praise.
On a lighter note, the talk also included the inevitable mention of Tim Peake, who has seemingly become the UK’s human embodiment of science and technology public engagement. The sheer amount of publicity surrounding Tim’s venture into space begs the question of whether that was the primary aim of his mission. It is worth noting that despite the tremendous amount of nationalistic pride we are being urged to feel, the only reason Tim Peake is the first British astronaut to go to the international space station is because the UK refused to fund anyone until now.
How well do science and politics mix?
Overall, the CaSE lecture was an excellent first-hand glimpse into the dichotomy that exists between science and politics. Whilst the two disciplines are both intended to serve the positive development of the human race, scientists and politicians are very different breeds of human. Jo Johnson, highly accomplished in his own right, studied Modern History at university, not a science and neither did his recent predecessors. For some reason, a scientist entering the political realm doesn’t appear to be what one would colloquially call ‘a thing’. Unless we consider Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry. That being said, the audience at the lecture was more than impressive, and the following Q&A session demonstrated more than anything the variety of brilliant people working towards guaranteeing the strength of British science continues to grow.
image credits: Photos by Will Dawson (www.wjdawson.co.uk)