A campaign group, calling itself ‘Science for the future’ is, today, delivering a coffin to Number 10 Downing street in London as a protest against what they claim to be the death of British science.
Their concern is that the UK state funded research councils, (particularly the Engineering and physical sciences research council, (EPRSC) that funds most of the chemistry research in the UK) are giving priority to research that will deliver good economic outcomes over blue sky research.
This group isn’t just a rag tag bunch of disgruntled scientist who are peeved that their projects don’t get funded. Its backed by a heady list of Nobel Laureates and heavily honoured scientists who published their views on the matter in a letter to todays Daily Telegraph.
Between the press coverage in the Telegraph, the BBC etc. and twitter (#science4thefuture) things are being pretty well covered. So I thought I’d focus on one aspect of the group’s issues with the EPSRC.
Any grant proposal submitted to the EPSRC has to include a section addressing the ‘National Importance‘ of the research. The guidelines on how to construct this section of the proposal states:
National Importance is the extent, over the long term, for example 10-50 years, to which the research proposed;
- contributes to, or helps maintain the health of other research disciplines contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges, contributes to current or future UK economic success and/or enables future development of key emerging industry(s)
Predicting the impact of our work 50 years into the future seems pretty incredible. There are plenty that think completing this section of the grant proposal requires the employment of a soothsayer.
I too wonder about at it usefulness. Under this regime would lasers have been funded given that they were perceived to be little more than physicists’ toys?
But lets suppose for a moment that in 1958 Townes and Schawlow had 20:20 foresight when they wrote a ‘National Importance’ statement for an EPSRC grant proposal. It may have gone something like this.
Over the next 50 years we envisage that lasers will have a extraordinary impact on research, technology and the everyday lives of people worldwide. Lasers will prove to be useful in every conceivable scientific discipline. For example, we expect them to be used as a viable means of inducing nuclear fission, eye surgens will correct abnormalities in the eyes by cutting into the cornea with lasers and so saving people the bother of wearing glasses, and we expect lasers to be used to manipulate single molecules with a technique that may become known as optical tweezers.
However lasers will not be restricted to the laboratory or trained medics. They will become ubiquitous, every home will have a device that uses lasers to play their music, so replacing vinyl disks. In fact we expect lasers to become so cheap and readily available that they will even replace the pointy stick used to highlight the important parts of slide presentations.
Would anyone really have believed that?