John Womersley is the Director of Science Programmes in the Science and Technology Facilities Council. He is responsible for the UK’s research in particle physics, astronomy, and space science, and for developing the science and technology strategy for the research council.
A few months ago I attended a debate in Oxford about government support for science. A number of leading particle physicists and astronomers defended the importance of this kind of fundamental science because of its impacts - things like the ability to attract students into STEM subjects, the development of MRI, the world wide web, and the impact of scientists on the financial sector (well, that seemed a good argument at the time).
These impacts on society are critical outputs of what we do and do indeed form a strong justification for it. However, these same scientists all expressed suspicion about what they feel is a growing expectation by government that they should be judged by and expected to increase those kinds of impacts. Any yet if that is such an important benefit of the science, how can it be so bad to ask for more of it?
I think the underlying issue is that the reason most scientists do science is not the same reason that society funds it. If we are honest, most of us carry out our research because we enjoy it - we find understanding the universe deeply fulfilling, revelatory even, and it taps into something basic in the human psyche. This kind of cultural enrichment certainly deserves support, just as society supports music or ballet. Scientists, however, have successfully made the case that our enterprises are far more important to society, and merit far greater financial support, than music or ballet. I think that is true. The key challenges of this century - climate, aging, third world food shortages, HIV - clearly require scientific advances if they are to be addressed. These global challenges form a strong and compelling case for the continuing importance of science, and it is a case that we should make with enthusiasm.
If government and society want to see relevant impacts from our science, we should embrace that challenge, and not recoil from it. To give just one example, if we say - as we often do - that an important impact of astronomy is attracting and training students who then go on to have an impact in industry, then we need to be sure our value system no longer implies that getting a postdoctoral post and then a faculty job is the best measure of success. Deep down inside, the societal and economic impact of our science may not be why we do it, but it is a large part of what we promise society in return for support, and that support not unreasonably comes with an expectation that we’ll deliver.