The government’s attitude to scientific research is confusing and inconsistent. Back in July, David Willetts’ claim that research investment should look beyond immediate economic impact went down reasonably well with the scientific community. However, any nerves soothed after Willetts’ first speech as science minister were quickly jangled following Vince Cable’s statement last month that funding will be rationed to projects deemed ’most excellent’. The implicit threat of cuts to the UK’s leading science base is seen by many as more evidence that the government can’t grasp the difference between spending and investment.
There are many arguments for not being too proscriptive about science funding. Perhaps most importantly it’s not always easy for scientists to anticipate the possible impact of their work several years down the line. Research that appears deeply theoretical today could yield huge economic and social benefits several years down the line. This potential must not be quashed.
There’s a lesson for the government in the UK’s Diamond Light Source a giant scientific instrument that has its roots in an obscure offshoot of particle physics but is today a vital tool for engineers. By using its beam-lines to probe the stresses and strains of a variety of components and materials, Diamond is helping drive engineering advances across a range of sectors. It’s a potent symbol of the importance of the relationship between fundamental scientific research and engineering. But, critically, had it not been given the space to grow when the long-term benefits of the research were unclear, the UK wouldn’t today be an international hub of excellence.
“Research that appears theoretical today could yield economic benefits years later”
The subject of our latest interview, Prof David MacKay would probably agree with the importance of not being too proscriptive about funding, although in his current role as DECC’s chief scientific adviser he’s championing an altogether more targeted mindset. MacKay believes sensible discussion about the UK’s impending energy crisis is far too clouded by fluff, obfuscation and self-interest. To stimulate informed public and political debate on the issue, he’s devising a mathematical tool that will, he claims, lay bare the realities of the
UK’s energy landscape and the measures that must be taken to balance emissions targets with the need to keep the lights on.
MacKay takes the sensible view that a range of generation options will keep the lights on. For instance, wind will make a contribution although not as huge as its advocates predict nor as measly as its detractors claim while nuclear, hailed by many as a silver bullet, won’t meet the shortfall alone.
Getting the most out of a diverse range of energy sources could be one of the main engineering challenges of the coming decades. One solution is discussed in our big story Building a supergrid for Europe which explores the growing momentum behind the concept of a Europe-wide ’supergrid’.