Home Secretary John Reid has compared the need for innovative ways of unearthing terrorist plots to the fortuitous inventions that helped turn the tide in the Second World War. Once again the maxim that a little knowledge goes a long way is amply demonstrated by governmental short-sightedness.
Of those Reid names as examples to be emulated – bouncing bomb inventor (Sir) Barnes Wallis and computer pioneers and Enigma code crackers Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers –
all very nearly failed in the face of a lack of government support.
Wallis’ bouncing bomb project was repeatedly rejected by politicians and civil servants, as were his later “swing-wing” designs for aircraft (used on modern-day fighters like the Tornado), dropped in favour of American planes. The bouncing bomb very nearly failed through lack of government funding, just as its designs were nearing completion, as they wrote him off as a typical mad scientist.
But hey, at least Wallis got a knighthood eventually… Flowers may have been posted to Bletchley Park, ensuring a certain amount of funding, but all he ever got for his pains was an MBE and a Ã‚Â£1000 thank you cheque – despite the fact that he personally funded development of the groundbreaking Colossus codebreaking computer in the face of government resistance to a device that would remain in operation with spy agencies until the end of the 1950s.
Alan Turing, on the other hand, despite being one of the most important inventors of the 20th century, found that after the war (and despite the onset of the Cold War), the government could no longer bother to find the money for his research, forcing him to quit the sorely under-funded National Physical Laboritory in 1947. Five years later he was prosecuted for being a homosexual, forced into hormone treatment designed to reduce his propensity for such perversion (that ended up making him grow breasts), and had all his funding and lab access revoked before – disgraced, isolated and humiliated – he committed suicide in 1954.
And life hasn’t been much easier for Britain’s scientists ever since. Throughout the Cold War, largely to keep in with the US, British inventions were consistently abandoned in favour of American alternatives – most notably the abandoning of the Blue Streak and Skybolt missile systems in favour of the American Polaris, while more recently the Westland affair caused scandal – but not enough to stop the British military recently opting to buy US-made Apache attack helicopters rather than British alternatives.
Over the last few decades, funding for scientific research has been steadily cut by successive governments, most recently with this summer’s announcement of a fresh overhaul of government funding, which will see the likes of Oxford and Cambridge universities – world-leaders in scientific research for four centuries – lose out big style.
But, of course, Reid would never suggest that the government should fund such research – designed to better prepare the nation’s defences – that would be a dangerously socialistic idea for the modern New Labour party. Instead (unsurprisingly, considering he was speaking at an event sponsored by a technology company), he is proposing extending Private Finance Initiatives into science.
In other words, any inventions not deemed instantly profitable (much like all the inventions of Wallis, Turing and Flowers) will swiftly be shelved, and the government will end up paying top-whack for those that prove to have some use.
Nice one, John.