What’s so special about science?

It's time to stand up for what matters

Rich Quick 26 September 2010

Racked up: too many benefits to count

It wasn't a novel or a symphony that saved my little sister when she had cancer

Editor's note: This piece is a partly based on a post on the Science is Vital blog. If you agree with Quick that the cause is important, visit the Science is Vital website today to find out more and show your support.

Here in the UK, we’ve just come out of a recession and we’re out of money. Cuts have to be made and everyone’s got to tighten their belts – and that includes scientists. So the story goes.

Vince Cable, the government’s Business Secretary, has told us there’s no justification for spending taxpayers’ money on research that’s “neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding”.

Does he have a point? Does science deserve to keep its funding, when all around are losing theirs? Or is science somehow special?

You’re reading this article on a website. The Web was invented by a British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee.

I’m writing it on a computer, which is underpinned by a wonderful piece of mathematics called a Turing machine, created by a British mathematician, Alan Turing.

My computer has various components, like transistors, printed circuit boards and LCD screens. All of which were developed by engineers, following scientific discoveries and along scientific principals.

The computer uses electricity to power it, sending packets of digital information along cables and via satellites from my desk in the ancient university town of St. Andrews in Scotland, up into space, and back down to a computer somewhere in London.

I work as a web designer, so you can imagine that having a computer and an internet connection is pretty handy. It amazes me daily that when I was a teenager, the Web hadn’t even been invented yet. How quickly the world moves on.

For some inexplicable reason I never learned to drive and I’ve lost count of the number of times my dad has driven me to interviews or meetings with clients. But he wouldn’t have been able to if he’d died a few years ago when he had heart problems. Fortunately, a firm scientific understanding of the human body, combined with some clever drugs (statins) and an operation to put a insert a stent, meant he didn’t die, so was alive to drive me to interviews. In his car. With its internal combustion engine.

None of this was bought about by the arts. None of it was bought about by sports. None of it was bought about by inland waterways.

It was science, mathematics and engineering.

I cherish all those other things. I once lived on a narrowboat and cherish those days on the Wey and Godalming canal, sat leafing though film scripts and books on cinematography. I cherish the pure joy of taking my mountain bike out on the North Yorks Moors, or the summer of 2005, which I spent coding up websites while watching Freddie Flintoff and co. pip the Aussies to the Ashes.

But I believe science is special.

I’d love to wave a magic wand and give more money to everyone. I’d love to see the Film Council supporting up-and-coming screenwriters. I know the transformative power that music and sports can have on kids from poor backgrounds. And I’d hate to see a wonderful resource like our canals fall into disrepair.

But I don’t believe in magic and the cuts, like it or not, are going to happen.

It’s just that, I believe science is special.

It wasn't a novel or a symphony that saved my little sister when she had cancer. It was a really rather horrible operation and months of chemotherapy.

It wasn't a painting or a play that kept my dad alive. And I'm not writing this on a football pitch.

The current campaign in the UK to protect science funding is called “Science is Vital”. That’s the point. Science is, and always will be, vital.

St. Andrews, where I live, is home to the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Over nearly 600 years, students and scholars have come here to study and expand the frontiers of knowledge in such wonderful subjects as Divinity, Latin, Greek, History, Modern Languages, Film Studies, Anthropology and Music.

But to my mind, there is one alumnus who stands above all others. Edward Jenner: son of a vicar, physician, and discover of the vaccine.

Jenner’s discovery, that a small dose of cowpox could prevent the much more virulent smallpox, saved literally millions of lives, lengthening and enriching the lives of countless more.

Smallpox remains the only disease in history that mankind has eradicated and the vaccine is, surely, one of the greatest advances in medicine.

It wasn’t a work of art. It wasn’t the 4-minute mile. It was science. And it was vital.
Vital in the original sense of the word, from the Latin “vitalis”, or “bringing life”.

I’d bet there’s a statistically significant chance that if Jenner’s discovery never happened, you wouldn’t be here, as one of your direct ancestors would have died or become infertile due to some disease there’s now a vaccine for.

I value Dickens, I am in awe of Mohammed Ali, but I may well owe my very existence to Jenner.

Science deserves protecting over other areas. When other areas are losing funding it sucks, but science should be given special treatment.

And it’s not just the useful stuff that’s vital. The “useless” pure research, well that’s vital too.

And not just because it illuminates our lives as human beings and gives us meaning, but because – wait for it, Mr. Cable – there’s no such thing as useless research.

All of it adds to our body of knowledge and so much that was once thought “pure” has now been applied.

Number theory is a prime example, if you’ll excuse the pun. Once thought of as totally useless, it’s now used in encryption techniques that allow ecommerce to happen.

Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent the Web to make money or to facilitate business, he invented it to help scientists share academic papers. Then, having invented this wonderful invention, did he try to monetize it? No, he just gave it away.

But why not leave it to other people? Why not let the Americans and the Japanese do the science?

Well, it’s stupid to do that, that’s why. Research brings money into this country; why let other people have that money?

While we’re at it, why not let America have all our gold reserves and give Japan all our patents?

Science is vital to this country’s economy.

Art, history, sport and Victorian canals are all wonderful things. But science is a special case. Science is vital.

Without science, you wouldn’t be reading this. Without science, my job wouldn’t exist. And without science, my mum, my dad and my little sister would all be dead.

Science is vital. Science brings, and illuminates, life.