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Science and Technology are fields in which we should lead the world

Posted on by Phillip Lee


If the foolish comments by Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Sir Tim Hunt, have any lasting effect at all, I hope it will be this; that we take to heart our new hashtag-induced awareness of women in science. I hope that #DistractinglySexy gets more women involved.

The Nobel Prizes themselves offer stark evidence of the female scientific talent humanity has likely wasted. 319 Nobel Science prizes have been awarded but only 16 women have been recognised. This is not because women are less capable than men of contributing to the advance of science. The work of women like Marie Curie, who literally gave her life to studying radioactivity (a term she created) and Gertrude Elion, whose work to develop drugs such as AZT (the first treatment for AIDS), has been of great significance to advancing human knowledge. Their outstanding work indicates that humanity would do well to encourage more women – as well as men – into the laboratory.

Indeed, we need to harness science as a whole, so as to meet the major challenges to our current way of life. Although addressing the relative absence of women in science will help, it will not be enough.

We are increasingly dependent upon science and technology. Great spurts of innovation are required to overcome threats from infectious disease and profound changes to our living environment; to manage our ageing society and secure the energy we need to power our ever-greater needs. Britain’s rapid industrialisation and its domination of world trade in the 18th century confirmed the importance of science and innovation in driving the economy. Yet in the last century, we squandered any economic value we may have got from our global lead in science and engineering disciplines – in rocket design, wind turbines and computer technology, to name only a few. Economically, we can no longer afford to do so as we seek to rebalance away from our dependence on financial services.

True innovation is a cooperative and long term venture. It thrives when it brings different sorts of people together to solve real problems. Usually much patience and serendipity is involved – the chance coming-together of years of painstaking research with a person or discovery suddenly able to make sense of a picture. Academia, Parliament, Government and the commercial sector all have important parts to play in creating an environment in which innovation flourishes. We have not yet got this in the UK – although many individuals have outstanding efforts to get us on the right path. The ‘catapult network’, for example, that David Willetts launched during the last Parliament  offers new science and innovation businesses access to the best technical expertise and equipment. It reinvigorated Government’s role and has begun to improve Britain’s relatively poor record of commercialising invention and scientific discovery in technologies ranging from cell biology to satellites.

Other countries offer lessons. At least some of South Korea’s astonishing economic success can be put down to how its businesses are engines of innovation – often with their own research institutes – and ruthless exploiters of every ounce of value in an innovation. Inventions pass through the broader company allowing for value to be added and products created for different markets. An emphasis on flexibility during this process enables greater potential return on investment. There is a strong belief that those in at the start secure the advantage of creating a market whilst installing barriers for late entrants. Apple has been a great exponent and beneficiary of such an approach.

We must also stop irreparably damaging our environment. In the early 17th century, Sir Francis Bacon first warned that ‘The empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.’ In the early 21st century, it is time to acknowledge that human survival, however insulated we may now feel, depends on a healthy respect for nature. All science should be founded on, and inspired by, such a principle.

Britain has an extraordinary scientific past – and our future could be equally stellar. British universities still have an outstanding record of scientific discovery. In Cambridge, the latest laser technologies are uncovering cell biology. Manchester’s materials scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010 for their work on isolating graphene, a product which is 200 times the strength of steel and a remarkably efficient conductor of heat and electricity. Whilst original work at Surrey helps explain why around 40% of the world’s communication satellites are now built in the UK.

But if we are to continue to succeed, more of us need to understand science better. We need more talented men and women choosing to study science, whether or not they pursue science careers. We have to be much better at working together – across disciplines and sectors of the economy. We need to invest a greater proportion of our country’s resources into science and engineering. And, finally, we have to be better at recognising, and harnessing, its value.