Girl, Interrupting

May 24, 2010

Do we really need another sputnik before we do something?

Filed under: higher education,science — sylviamclain @ 4:13 pm
Tags: , , ,

Do you like your mobile phone? Do you like the fact that you can use the world wide web to connect with your friends?
do you like using your iphone when you sit on a delayed train?


Than why don’t you support government funding of the sciences?

I think the answer many folks would give is this:
I already have a mobile and a computer and television, what is your point?
Governments are in deficit, we don’t have any money – we need budget cuts, I don’t want to fund some scientist that does something esoteric and useless…

I am a scientist, and I can’t count the times that people have said to me ‘but how is this useful?’ or ‘what is the point of that?’ or even worse ‘Wow, you must be really smart, I could never understand that’

These questions are not so easy to answer because there is not always a clear connection between scientific discovery or the science we are doing right now and this is, in part, because we don’t know precisely where science is going to lead us in the long-term.

but I also think one of the problems is that there is not always a clear public understanding of science and its history and its link to modern technology

So, who’s fault is that?
There are several places we could lay blame but I think now might be a good time to ask…

Do we as scientists do a good job at communicating with the public?
I would say yes and no and we are going to have to do better…

Yes: There is a huge amount of science blogging these days, on science, on science policy, on the use of evidence-based methods, on bad science in the media and many more. There are science programmes with Brian Cox, Simon Singh, on Planet Earth and the BBC recently announced it wanted to help increase science literacy by launching programmes on the celebration of science.

But is this enough?
No: Apparently not Because people and politicians still ask this question – ‘ how is this useful?’ and then, perhaps by default, decide it isn’t useful enough. Among the first things that are being cut in this economic crisis by both the US and UK governments are science and higher education.

The US House just blocked the scientifically based America COMPETES bill and wants to freeze funding for research budgets at US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation over the next 3 years.

and today the first cuts announced by the UK coalition government were:
…. £836m of cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), £670m to the Department for Education, and no cuts to the Departments for Health,
Defence, and International Development
(my italics).

Would this happen if there were public outrage? Perhaps it would anyway, but perhaps not.

as is noted by Road from Ruin authors Bishop and Green, today’s £6bn cuts are political rather than useful economically . Aside from the obvious caveat that public outcry doesn’t mean much to the government, as it often doesn’t, this is at the very least is where the government thought the best cuts could be made and must on some level be linked to a public perception of the importance of government funding for science and education.

but as was simply put: from twitter today:
@THE (Times Higher Education) @NHJ_HE Does the sector communicate effectively how important it is to the public?
I think not. If they did, everyone would #loveHE

Despite all of the gargantuan efforts of scientific writers such as Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Brian Cox there is more to do and maybe as a community we need to try to do better.

Or maybe we need another Sputnik:

At exactly 19:28:34, October 4, 1957 the soviet satellite Sputnik was launched and spent 3 months in orbit, I wasn’t alive then, but apparently you could see it from the USA on a warm summer evening, travelling in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
the US freaked out – how were the Soviets ahead? They thinking about satellites too, the US decided that they were a good idea in 1955, but Spunik caught Westerners off guard – and thus became NASA…

I probably don’t have to go into the details of what NASA brought us, do I? We all know this – everyone likes the Velcro example but what about SATELLITES, which allow things like mobiles, the internet, wireless internet..
But what Sputnik also did was increase the education budget and specifically the science education budget in the US, as politicians at the time saw the link between science research and higher eduction.

but we don’t need another cold war to inspire us – maybe we can up the ante in the scientific community – extend the efforts of those already blogging about science (see above, and apologies for anyone I missed) and creating such laudable organizations as ‘Sense about Science’ and I’m a scientist.

I think we need to add a little history – about how technology has been developed from scientific research, which was considered, perhaps ‘useless’ at the time, and this is what I, for one, intend to do.


  1. Sylvia, I agree whole-heartedly. A country that gives up on science is giving up on the future.
    “Scientia,” the Latin word, means “knowledge”…it doesn’t get any plainer.
    These are very hard times, I know.
    But in the long term, science is ultimate truth…and what will get us out of the mess we are in.

    Comment by Agatha Bardoel — May 24, 2010 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent blog post!

    There are, of course, the wider social implications that science funding solves and I have never seen a science writer or science enthusiast mention this. Maybe it takes being outside of science, like I am, to notice this (a point I’ll resurrect later) but I was at the Guardian HE conference and spoke to a number of people all of whom lamented the number of STEM graduates. This raised the point that businesses have to look abroad for qualified adept employees, where tech and science are both given much more respect than I’d say we do here.

    This led me to think. Does that mean that immigration isn’t a case of setting up a good management system to see how many students/workers are coming in, but how we manage the funding of our higher education and training? Let’s look at the typical “all these Polish builders/electrician/plumbers coming over here and taking our jobs” argument that some like to trot out. Why are they taking all these jobs? Could it be because years earlier there was a widely reported dearth of trained employees in those areas and they were filling a skills gap in our employment market? I honestly think that was an overriding factor. Yes, the priced some Brits out of a job, but they wouldn’t be here if the jobs weren’t available in the first place.

    With that in mind, then surely there is a subsequent argument that not only does science funding aid our evolution as a species it actually helps the economy and immigration policy of our nation. Hence, fund science, fund HE, fund FE and fund apprenticeships. Fund anything that will give the UK a varied and mixed pool of employees who not only can compete at the highest level but who also have the confidence and skills to *gasp* emigrate themselves if they need to (I know there is the whole “brain drain” argument, but I do think that there is a need for Brits to emigrate as well. I find the “brain drain” idea a bit too nationalistic for my taste.)

    Now back to my point about being outside science. Surely the someone from outside the sector seeing a new perspective to help strengthen the argument for funding shows a need for the education sector as a whole to work together to help each other, rather than section off and to help their respective subject areas? Yes! Science needs to be funding, but so does philosphy, so does history, so do vocational skills. If you all worked together you could spot positive arguments for your goals (and useful arguments against which can be prepared for). It is hugely depressing, as a huge supporter and fan of the sector who works outside of it, that this sector just is not united enough! I have seen a great rush by some of the country’s most eminent minds to a sort of protective tribalism where they are focused purely on their own areas. Why do the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, million+ all release individual statements-many times conflicting with each other-but I have not once seen a joint statement by these bodies against a shared enemy. (Admittedly, I may have missed some in the past!)

    As my tweet suggested, therein lies the rub. Yes, we can show how science is a worthy and desirable cause to fund, but the whole sector needs help and only with large numbers, united in a common cause, can the sector truly change public opinion and strengthen their argument.

    Apologies for the slight rant, but as I said, I am a huge fan of the work done by everyone within the sector and I’m very frustrated by how there are not many more people who think the same as me.

    Comment by Newell — May 25, 2010 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  3. […] technology and higher education money, where both the US and the UK governments are making cuts. (see my previous post) I think everyone knows this and there are probably going to be more cuts, more cuts, and more […]

    Pingback by Ivory towers, science and society.. « Girl, Interrupting — May 27, 2010 @ 9:30 pm | Reply

  4. “Do you like your mobile phone?Do you like the fact that you can use the world wide web to connect with your friends? do you like using your iphone when you sit on a delayed train?
    Yes? Than why don’t you support government funding of the sciences?”

    Science still scares common people. Your intro follows directly the consensual causality by which politicians give to the public justifications for the investment effort put in science nowadays. However, I believe this can be dangerous, and misleading.

    This trend is what made politicians wants us (academic scientists) to justify Science for its usefulness, which implies that the sole aim of science is to technologically transform the world (I guess that’s a B. Russel’s type of view). But this gives to fundamental sciences a hazy status explaining its easy discredit in an economical crisis situation, associated to a complete overlook of the INDIRECT benefits there are in trying to answer fundamental questions (origin/structure/dynamics of universe, life, societies, human or not).

    In other words, they are are human activities that, like sleeping, do not obviously bring value added, but that are still important if not fundamental to our sanity as souls, thinkers, humans. Rather polemically, I’d put here in the same “knowledge basket”, all this invaluable good, which is property of all of us : the fundamental sciences (both exact and less exact), arts AND religion. All these apparently unproductive byproducts of our brains represent human needs that in a ideal world, do NOT need any form of justification and should be highly appreciated by the whole as necessary. Period. In other blogs, you perfectly said that regarding funding, fundamental science would in fact gain a lot if we had like in arts, sort of Saatochi, rather than dumb politicians…

    Naively and initially, shifting at school from engineering to academics, i was qualifying (&dreaming) academic science as such disinterested activity where times scale are NOT important and VERY long (see your blog, science just takes time…) and results open source, in opposition to (company driven) technological developments where competition is the drive and times scales much shorter matching more the political turnover and results are patented. And all my science career has been a delusion forcing me to accept the political consensus that gives us money and a right to be, only if we slightly fraudulently manage to “play their game”, and claim we are useful.

    So if everything we do has to be business and value added, I guess it is important for stressing how much our position is unfair, to recall how companies (focusing on mobile phone operators in France) is doing THEIR business, how like gamblers, they fraudulently, speculatively got quantifiable return on investments and a self-justification that will hardly happen to the less justifiable knowledge academic scientists “produce” or accumulate.

    The economy of the mobile phone industry and its dynamics was based on concurrence, in opposition to the monopole held by historic and public telephony operator, France telecom. This was admitted to be necessary, in order to get customers at attractive low prices. In initial stages (95-97) two companies (in particular orange) were fighting the market, gambling on huge investments on equipments (networks and phone terminals), and prices did breakdown a second time when a third came into the arena. Each new customer was costing about £200 to the company, AT LOSS, and companies became beneficiary only around the years 2000-2001. The plan to recover those costs was particularly cheeky, because in the mean time customers were hooked buying packages with fix term (1 or two year contracts), the operators were reimbursing themselves by absolutely outraging charges for calls from landlines phones to cellulars, therefore and at the extreme, by people who could be AGAINST mobile phones or their spread… with no control and agreement on such prices between the mobile phone operators because if you had to call a cellular from fixed phones financed by state money, you had to comply to the choice of operator done by the mobile phone holder! Said differently, having been a mobile phone skeptic almost up to 2004, but seeing its overwhelming spread and being forced to call mobiles form landline has made me pay the mobile phone of many users for ten years LIKE IF I WAS PAYING A SATE TAX!!!! And nowadays, after long debates, and after the deed’s done, ACADEMIC scientists, medical doctors studying cancers, are warning more and more on the real danger of exposure to electromagnetic waves…

    In that sense, I started this comment disagreeing with you, but I finally agree: someone always has to pay, for knowledge, and whether it is useful or not, it is ALWAYS valuable! sad that companies don’t have the culture, the humanistic view to consider our apparently useless knowledge better, recognize that all industries relying on semiconductors have no reason to be without the quantum mechanics established “for free” in the 30’s, and that they are no mechanisms for THEM to pay US back so that we don’t need to rely here only on politicians, on people blinded by their their own time scale of only ~5 years during which they have the power…

    Comment by Aziz — June 3, 2010 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

  5. Plus, A testimony matching my feelings…

    Comment by Aziz — June 4, 2010 @ 7:27 am | Reply

  6. Sorry wanted to point you at this nature article

    Comment by Aziz — June 4, 2010 @ 7:28 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: