Britain’s best-known science communicator speaks out on the importance of engineering funding.
Engineering is in need of a new poster boy. With Vince Cable hinting at plans to cut blue skies research and Lord Browne waging war on physicists at the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK’s science and technology community seems more divided than ever. But now Prof Brian Cox, former rock star, working physicist and the BBC’s latest sensation, is planning to help unite the warring factions and bring engineering to the forefront of scientific research.
’I’d love to be seen as just as much a communicator for engineering as for science,’ said Cox, ’My dad says that I watched the Moon landings when I was one. I don’t remember that, but one of my earliest memories is seeing pictures of Apollo around the house. I’m sure it was those things that caught my eye because the early 1970s was a time of astonishing science and this inspiring engineering. Anything was possible and it was absolutely fascinating.’
With his soft Oldham accent, boyish good looks and genuine enthusiasm, it’s easy to see how Cox attracted more than five million viewers to his five-part BBC2 series, Wonders of the Solar System. The programme saw Cox calculate the energy of the sun using an umbrella in Death Valley, reach the outer edges of the Earth’s atmosphere in a jet fighter and sculpt Saturn in the sand of an African desert. When he’s not seeking out extreme environments, he’s working as a professor of physics at Manchester University and is a senior scientist on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland.
For Cox, science and engineering have always been intimately linked. ’There is virtually no difference in my mind. If you look at CERN, for example, it’s number one – an astonishing engineering achievement. To make that thing – 27km of it – with superconducting magnets all over the place – to industrialise that to the level that was necessary was a tremendous achievement. To find out what the Universe was like a billionth of a second after it began you need an engineer, a scientist and a mathematician.’
But Cox has been much more than that. His early career put him on an altogether different path when, at 18, he joined rock band Dare as a keyboard player and went on to record two moderately successful albums. Aged 23, he returned home and applied to study physics at Manchester University. But music once again intervened and, in 1990, Cox joined D:Ream, the band responsible for Labour’s 1997 winning anthem Things can only get better. According to Cox, however, things have got worse.
“In terms of ambition for manned space flight, we have gone backwards – there’s no doubt about it”
’The story of space engineering in my life has gone from massive optimism to complete disaster,’ he said. ’You know, we’ve gone nowhere, we’re retiring the Shuttle this year, just like we retired the Concorde. I almost feel like we’ve gone backwards. It’s not true of course – aeronautical engineering hasn’t gone backwards. But in terms of ambition for manned space flight, we have gone backwards, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s actually the desire to want to do it.’
The lack of desire, stressed Cox, is not down to engineers, but politicians. Vince Cable’s announcement last month that research funding will be rationed by ’excellence’ is, according to Cox, a classic example of poor policy. ’You don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer to look at that and say “that’s just idiocy”. It’s so obvious that the research budget is too small in the UK. It’s below the EU average, yet we’re second only to the US in our success in [publishing research in] science and engineering. Every other country that matters is increasing its science and engineering research budget. I wish I could say that all politicians are idiots, because that’s how they appear, but I know they’re not. So I’m genuinely baffled.’
“Engineering is the basis of everyone’s life, without a doubt. It’s so obvious you almost feel it’s a cliché, but maybe it’s not that obvious”
Another senior figure that Cox is displeased with is Lord Browne, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Browne recently broke with convention by criticising maths and physics as having too much government funding compared with engineering. ’It’s an unfortunate opinion to want to cut this bit instead of that,’ said Cox. ’I think it’s a political division. On a non-grandee level, we certainly don’t think that. As a science and engineering community we have to stand up with a unified voice and make a big noise together.’
And this is what Cox is hoping to do. In between flying to Nepal to film a new series, Wonders of the Universe, for the BBC, he is campaigning hard to voice his concerns over budget cuts, which this week are expected to hit the UK’s research base hard. ’Engineers need to stand up for themselves,’ said Cox. ’Engineering is the basis of everyone’s life, without a doubt. It’s so obvious that you almost feel it’s a cliché, but maybe it’s not that obvious. When people say we’re going to cut the research and development budget, we don’t make a big noise about it. But it should be on the front page of every newspaper. What a stupid thing to do.’
Brian Cox Biography
Professor of particle physics at Manchester University
1997 Awarded a PhD in high-energy particle physics at Manchester University
1989 Member of the rock band Dare
1993 Joined pop group D:Ream
2004 Began working on ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider
2005 Received a Royal Society University Research Fellowship
Science consultant on Danny Boyle’s science fiction film Sunshine
2009 Became professor of particle physics at Manchester University
Began a show on Radio 4 called The infinite monkey cagewith comedian and writer Robin Ince
2010 Awarded an OBE for his services to science. Presented the BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System
Let’s get physical
What was one of your best experiences working on Wonders of the Solar System?
Definitely flying on top of the atmosphere in a Lightning jet fighter. I realised that this piece of engineering is the enabler that gives you this almost philosophical insight into the fragility of the Earth. You see the fragility of the atmosphere from up there and all those thoughts and ideas that come into your head are enabled by this astonishing machine. So I loved that machine. You can become very attached to it. I’m just as excited actually, by those things as I am by the science in many ways.
Did you ever consider a career as an engineer?
Yes, I did. In fact, I was going to do electronic engineering at Leeds University. But then I joined a band for a while and, when I came back, I decided I would do physics instead. I’ve always flitted between those subjects. The most recent work I did academically was running a hardware project to upgrade the detectors at the LHC. It was a challenge to put the sensors very close to the LHC beam -very close, just millimetres away -which is really difficult with silicon detectors. So then I was back running an engineering project, essentially.
Do you think the UK’s research base has been damaged by a lack of funding?
It was damaged massively by the problems we had in physics in 2007. I think it’ll take years to rebuild our reputation because of the problems we had in the last spending review, where money was relatively tight. So now if we face further 20 to 25 per cent cuts, it’s going to take a generation to fix for the sake of a saving of around billion pounds, which is zero in terms of government spending.
Do you think these mistakes are down to a lack of engineers and scientists in government?
Well, the thing is, you don’t have to be an engineer or a scientist to notice what will happen if we cut the research budget. Every statistic tells you that investing in the science and engineering base is a good idea. I don’t care if you’ve got a history degree; if you’ve got a brain, just a piece of a brain, you will notice that this is a good idea. It’s so obvious that you just need sensible people.
Which of the recent developments in engineering are you most excited about?
From a CERN perspective, I’m excited by the way we’ve been able to build these incredibly complicated superconducting magnets. I think that’s got massive implications. I happen to think that fusion power is something that we should be pursuing vigorously. I also think of the potential of the development of the Skylon space plane. That’s fascinating because, again, we can do those things. Actually, commercial low-Earth-orbit spaceflight in general is fascinating. Although, really, I’d like to be able to go to Mars one day.
Brian Cox will be delivering a lesson on the solar system on November 16th as part of The Big Bang: UK Young Scientist and Engineers Fair.