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UK Science, It's About Winning

25/10/2016 12:32

Like many I'm still exuberant about our Olympic success (27 Olympic and 64 Paralympic gold medals). But I was also disappointed at news of the recent Nobel Prizes, two of the three physics recipients were English, David J. Thouless and Duncan M. Haldane, and the other was Scottish, J. Michael Kosterlitz, one of the three chemists, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and one of the two economic memorial prize laureates, Oliver Hart. These great men were born in our United Kingdom and trained at one of its prestigious institutions, mostly Oxbridge, and all have emigrated to America.

To me this is terrible, it means that the UK taxpayer has for decades been subsidising American scientific success. These cases are by no means isolated, recent history shows us it is common for our natural philosophers to uproot and make way for the New World, something the former President of the Royal Society Sir Paul Nurse has done (becoming President of Rockefeller University).

It must be said that Britain also has a record of assimilating foreign academics and helping them reach heights they would never had achieved in their homeland, as was the case for the discoverers of graphene and ex-soviets Sir Andre Geim and Sir Konstantin Novoselov, and Indian-British mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

How do I propose we solve our problem? We need to forget about what Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrass Tyson romantically called the Poetry of Science and focus on winning, mainly getting awards. We need to be getting those citations, Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, and Abel Prizes Because, let's face it, that is the only way ordinary taxpayers can measure progress. UK Research Councils, who administer research money, need to copy the strategy of UKSport. This means

  1. an unsentimental, even an "unfair," funding system as Andrew Marr puts it, where we cut losers' funding and reward winners;
  2. a tight, disciplined teamwork engaging everyone from parents to groundsmen; and
  3. getting the most out of the talent and graft of scientists.
We need to give up on the stuff we are mediocre at and others are far better at, for example space exploration and particle physics. We can never hope to pump in the amounts of money NASA and CERN have at their disposal, 19.3 Bn USD and 1.12 Bn CHF respectively. Instead the UK Research Councils should focus on stuff which is less attractive like graphene materials and measuring gravitational waves.

UKSport has succeeded in finding the best athletes, retaining them, and pushing them to the highest levels. Today the UK bleeds scientists like it bleeds doctors and its bureaucracy cripples the ones that stay. Imagine if the research councils became more like UKSport: those subjects we progress most in get the most funding and the most time; while those subjects we do badly in, or are too crowded, are cut. Scientists are human beings, and they will respond to those incentives as swiftly as they respond to publish-or-perish. If every year we hear English scientists at English universities have won awards can begin to inspire a younger generation a lot more than news of success of English scientists at American universities. The foundation of our Olympic success is down to one man, Sir John Major, and UK science could follow the same path, but maybe it's too much to ask Theresa May to become the next John Major.

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