16/02/2015 12:30 GMT | Updated 15/04/2015 06:59 BST

Rosetta, Beagle 2 and the Virtue of Science for Science's Sake

If we are truly to achieve the science of tomorrow that will help us overcome the problems of today, we need to be bold. We need to be brave. We need to dare to dream. Beagle 2 reminds us to keep the dream alive. As for tomorrow, who knows? Let's keep dreaming.

"If you copy things you will only ever come second. To come first you must anticipate. You need to take risks. It's the only way to be the best."

This was the wisdom of European Space Agency (ESA) chief Jean-Jacques Dordain, when I heard him speak at the opening of the 7th Annual Space Conference at the European Commission in Brussels last month. I am now reminded of those words again looking at the latest spectral pictures from Rosetta and anticipate it coming within 6km of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko tomorrow.

When I first heard those words my thoughts were of the decade long saga of Beagle 2.

Like many of you, on Christmas Day twelve years ago I waited as this small British probe, built by the Open University, and carried through the Solar System on the ESA's Mars Express Orbiter, reached out to settle on the face of Mars. Moments later, as it descended, all contact was lost. As was, we assumed very sadly, Beagle 2.

The joy of hearing the news that Beagle 2 had safely landed on Mars, was mixed with a measure of regret that her effervescent creator, Colin Pillinger, died mere months earlier, never knowing for sure how close he came. Although he must have known how his infectious enthusiasm re-ignited a love of space exploration in the nation.

This vindication could have helped in some way to dispel the voices of those critics who viewed Beagle 2 as a waste of money.

This way of thinking, that there is profitable and unprofitable science, is dangerous yet pervasive in today's funding climate.

It endangers the flow of funding to Britain's world beating institutions, and stifles our scientists. As I heard during a recent visit to one of my constituency's world-class universities, some of the best new discoveries come from pure science, with no original practical application in mind. But it is becoming harder and harder to justify this to austerity-obsessed governments in Whitehall and across Europe.

Indeed a consensus has descended on European capitals. From London to Berlin, Lisbon to Warsaw, our governments qualify support for our scientists by demanding private sector results, stifling necessary theoretical science that is needed for innovation to continue.

This drive to put the cart before the horse has manifested itself in a new European Commission, with a new agenda for scientific research. This agenda champions the virtues of practical, marketable research projects, but it is in danger of leaving pure science behind; the research that inspires, that dares us to dream, to reach for the stars like Beagle 2.

It was this kind of free-thinking experimentation that led to a Nobel Prize for research at Manchester University for the discovery of two-dimensional graphene, a groundbreaking material with a strength, conductivity and pliability that is already revolutionising manufacturing. Indeed European funding is now being made available to turn graphene to practical use.

Britain has the distinction of claiming more Nobel Laureates than any other country apart from the US. Yet it is quite clear from the framework of Horizon 2020, the programme where Britain's EU scientific research grants come from, that pure science research as a bastion of scientific discovery could be a thing of the past. Virgin science, it seems, is to fall by the wayside in favour of marketability.

Since 2010 British universities have suffered substantial losses in public funding, with Tory-led cuts leaving government support for our most precious universities at a 100 year low. With research money harder to come by, British universities depend on EU funding now more than ever. Now this too is in danger of disappearing, as the Commission proposes to redirect some Horizon 2020 money to a Strategic Investment Fund. It is vital that this fund also supports the scientific knowledge base upon which investment depends.

There are great examples in my region, the South West, and across the UK, of universities working hand in glove with industry to turn EU funding into the sort of scientific excellence that generates high quality jobs. 3D printing at the University of Exeter, for example, where a joint Airbus Innovations Group and European Regional Development Fund project has now become the Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing (CALM), which has supported more than 200 hundred companies and created £20million in regional growth.

It is this kind of scientific research that can support SMEs and achieve the wider sustainable growth for Britain that we need.

Much like CALM, Beagle 2 did generate new technology that is now being used, but that wasn't the driving force behind its launch. Inspiration is never so straightforward. What it did do was motivate a new generation of scientists to achieve things previously thought impossible. We need to ensure that this next generation is also able to reach for the stars.

Unfortunately the malaise of short termism that began with the Tories and their cuts, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, is now settling into the thinking of those behind EU research grants.

If ever there was an example of long term gains to guard against short-term thinking, surely it is the decade-long wait for Beagle 2, and the world class British space industry it has helped foster.

So now more than ever, our universities and scientists need the public to rally behind them, and show their support. Only in this way can those politicians, like my fellow Labour MEPs, who believe in pure scientific endeavour for science's sake, try to stem the tide of cautious complacency and call out the short termism of purely market driven research.

If we are truly to achieve the science of tomorrow that will help us overcome the problems of today, we need to be bold. We need to be brave. We need to dare to dream.

Beagle 2 reminds us to keep the dream alive. As for tomorrow, who knows? Let's keep dreaming.