Science and history, equally ignored

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 £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.

  1. Chuck Unsworth said:

    Yes, nicely done.

    Of course this is the difference in horizons. Those of politicians such as ‘Dr’ Reid (PhD, apparently – how standards have fallen) run to four years at the most and are usually limited to the next day’s headlines.

    By contrast Barnes Wallis, Flowers, Turing, Mitchell etc had visions which were to do with what might be achieved.

    This is the difference between political opportunism and intellectual integrity. No prizes for guessing who exhibited what!

  2. dearieme said:

    “the likes of Oxford and Cambridge universities – world-leaders in scientific research for four centuries”: oh come off it. You can’t know much about their history if you think that. And what on earth makes you think that “scientists” design helicopters? Or that aircraft-launched nuclear missiles were a better bet than submarine-launched?

  3. dearieme – the name Newton ring any bells? Hawking? Not sure what your point is on the anti-Oxbridge stuff. And I’d have thought it was apparent that I was referring to science in the broadest sense in any case, including engineering and the like. With my history background and physics only to GCSE level, I’d be hard pushed to work out the aerodynamics of rotor blades – surely science plays some part in helicopter design, or do they run off magic?

    (As for air versus submarine-launched nukes, who can tell? We never went through with it, and ended up reliant on foreign technology for our supposedly independent nuclear deterrent. Which was, erm… the point…)

  4. Jonn said:

    A couple of weeks back the CBI suggested that the government make a point of buying new and innovative products from British companies, to encourage them to invest in research.

    They reason that, because the UK public procurement budget is something like 30 times the size of government spending on science and R&D, this is the best way to up research spending without actually needing to shell out any more.

    Response from the government has been conspicuous by its absence, though.

  5. Chris Williams said:

    Nosemonkey, I think that you’re buying into the ‘declinist’ view of British history. It doesn’t work. At least up until the 1960s, the UK was a warfare state, putting lots of money into technology. Yeah, the losing players (TSR2, AGR, Avro Atlantic, V1000, etc) got to sob, but the winners got billions – some of which actually produced weapons systems, or airliners. If you don’t believe me then go away and read David Edgerton’s _England and the Aeroplane_. It’s short, good, and has pictures in it.

  6. dearieme said:

    Newton was a wonderful flash-in-the-pan who did his best work while Cambridge was closed by the plague. From his time, science was of no significance in Oxbridge until the reforms of the late 19th century, when Clerk-Maxwell came south to open the Cavendish and Cambridge set up the Natural Sciences Tripos. (Before then the only Honours degrees Cambridge offered were in maths and Divinity.)The locust years of Oxbridge are no secret – see the comments of Adam Smith or Edward Gibbon – just as the huge success of the Cavendish isn’t. Your “400 hundred years” tosh remains tosh. “Over the last few decades, funding for scientific research has been steadily cut by successive governments”: now if you could document that, I’d like to see it – plenty of people say it, but is it true?

  7. Ken said:

    The problem is that British attitudes to science have always focused around the eccentric inventor beavering away on his own, and rarely focused on providing any real infrastructural support. And that has been a problem for many, many years – even when it was obvious Germany’s chemical and engineering advances were funded by great state help of the universities, Britain remained wedded to the idea that universities were for the humanities rather than the sciences. And I speak as a historian. Mind you, nowadays the amount of funding available for history is derisory…

  8. Chris Williams said:

    “British attitudes to science have always focused around the eccentric inventor beavering away on his own, and rarely focused on providing any real infrastructural support.”

    No – Britain was a world leader in big institutional projects. You don’t invent sonar, radar, and the computer by accident. And between 1920 and 1970 the universities were steered towards science and technology. That’s where the money was.

    Edgerton _Warfare State_ (CUP 2005) is what you need to check out.

    I’m a historian too, as it happens. When did we _ever_ get any money?

  9. dearieme said:

    “Britain was a world leader in big institutional projects.” Against which you could cite the catostrophic government airship project, the refusal to fund the Spitfire, the feeble state of naval gunnery in WWI, etc, etc. Then again,the atom bomb WAS invented “by accident” – one flash of inspiration for Leo Szilard. The govt then did a good job getting its development underway and finally succeeding in pestering the Yanks to carry the project forward, not least by using Einstein as a British agent. And we handed then radar and penicillin free too. Those were the days, eh?

  10. guano said:

    Reid, and some of the people writing here, are getting science confused with technology. Science is about the creation of understanding: it involves rules for experimentation and analysis to minimise the errors. Technology is one of the results of the creation of understanding. Politicians tend to like technology. They like to be associated with modern, shiny gadgets. They are looking for technical fixes, which help them avoid difficult choices. On the other hand, politicians tend to be impatient with science. It is often a long-term business, it may not have easy answers, it may challenge some of the myths that they cling to, it may not be easily reduced to a sound-bite slogan, and it may confront the politician with difficult choices that he/she would prefer to avoid.

    There was a very revealing piece in Comment is Free recently by Anthony Giddens, saying that climate change was too important to be left to the Greens. He then went on to say that Greens were Luddites who were against science and technology. This seems to be a common prejudice among politicians, especially New Labour ones who are desperate to be seen as modern. It is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding about what science is about – being critical of a technology isn’t necessarily a prejudice, it may be based on good scientific reasoning.

    Politicians like Reid want scientists to go away and invent a machine to detect terrorists. However science doesn’t work like that.

  11. dearieme said:

    But if science leads us we know not where, why not start off with a practical problem and see if the work improves fundamental understanding too?

  12. Chris Williams said:

    “the refusal to fund the Spitfire”


    The Spitfire protptype was the F37/34 – an Air Ministry designation. It flew in 1936. Squadron service began in 1938. What wasn’t funded, then?

    deari, somehow or other the British had the best-defended bit of airspace on the planet in 1939. That wasn’t an accident. Don’t compare what happened with some techno-fantasy of what might have been: compare it with what everyone else was up to.

  13. dearieme said:

    Wikipedia: Mitchell immediately turned his attention to an improved design as a private venture…..
    By 1935, the Air Ministry had seen enough advances in the industry to try the monoplane design again. They eventually rejected the new Supermarine design …
    So what wasn’t funded was the development of the Spitfire.

  14. dearieme said:

    And as for its engine: “Designed by Rolls-Royce as a private-venture, the Merlin was able to take advantage of the new 100 octane fuel developed in the U.S.A.”. Where was the british govt in that?

  15. Dearieme – sorry, I’m trying very hard to work out what your point is. First you disputed the claimed lack of government funding for scientific/technological research, now you’re arguing (as I did in the original post) that the government didn’t fund scientific/technological research.

    By all means argue that government funding wouldn’t be a benefit to research efforts (although you’d be hard pushed to find many British examples of direct governmental funding for long-term research full-stop, at least not since the mid-19th century), but make up your mind what you’re arguing for/against, old chap – it’s getting very confusing.

  16. dearieme said:

    My point is simply that your knowledge of science and technology would seem to be rather thin.

  17. Well, erm, yes. Didn’t my “physics only to GCSE level” mentioned in the third comment make that apparent enough?

  18. dearieme said:

    Some of us learn stuff after we leave school.

  19. Ooooh! Miaow! THAT put me in my place…

  20. Chris Williams said:

    A historian writes:

    Yeah but for fuck’s sake Clive, read _England and the Aeroplane_. You’ve got your head screwed on in a number of important ways – it’s a shame that you’re so horrendously wrong about this issue. Hell, I’ll lend you my copy if necessary.

  21. guthrie said:

    What is just as important about the university funding review is that it looks to me like it will further emphasise the importance of external funding for universities, and we all know how many companies focus on short term immediate usefulness. I do wonder how much in the last 30 years companies have gotten used to using universities as cheap R&D, not to mention benefiting from gvt subsidies for universities.

    We need to open it up to a wider debate as well- if university funding depends upon research, why bother teaching? I am slowly moving towards the idea that teaching and research are not quite as linked as we have been treating them this past century or two. What I learnt at university (Chemistry degree) was not research related until my 4th year project, and even then it was a small project. Meanwhile the real work was done by PhD students and post-docs.
    And theres also the issue of universities getting money per bums on seats and hence maximising income by cutting real stuf flike labwork. I had a temporary job in a place, working under someone who had graduated from the same university 25 years earlier. When I fouled up big time, as he was telling me off, he pointed out how he had had twice as much laboratory time as I had, and gotten to use many of the instruments himself, and as a result he was much more hands on oriented.
    So, I say more hands on work, and the funding necessary to do it.

  22. Chris – I’ll see if they’ve got it at the local library, failing that head to the BL in a couple of weeks when I’ve got some spare time (I’m not too hot on British aviation policy after about 1938, it must be admitted…)

    The major point, though, was that the specific examples Reid chose were poor for a government man to take up on due to those inventors’ effective betrayal by the state.

    Perhaps I also should have specified that by “last few decades” I meant since the 1970s. I have no actual figures to back up the assertion that science and technology funding has been in decline since then, but I doubt this would be hard to track down, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence – such as that from guthrie, above.

  23. guthrie said:

    It depends what you mean by funding as well- I am pretty sure that university funding overall has been negatively affected by the 80’s and 90’s expansion of HE. The gvt wanted more degrees, but wasnt wanting to pay for it all. But that is just uni teaching funding, then theres the research funding, which many people have been pointing out for years has become too skewed towards companies and their immediate desires, rather than longer term explorations of possibilities.
    Hence the nanotech thing a few years ago, when the best way to get funding was to put the word nanotech into your proposal.

    Having actually gone and read the Reid article, I think it is a great slur upon our ancestors. WW2 and the current terrorist problems are simply not comparable, both in scope and aims.
    Where are these 214 people who have been convicted of terrorism offences? I cant think of more than 5 or 6, if any.
    His quote:
    “Mr Reid said business played a vital role in creating the security and resilience needed to defeat terrorists.

    He urged the security sector to harness their expertise in the same way as bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallis and the Enigma code cracker Alan Turing did.”

    Can effectively be taken as meaning that he wants more privatisation of security services.
    Oh look, I was right:
    “The home secretary also proposed the creation of a new “innovation taskforce” to encourage security and technology companies to work together where possible.”

    Now, what does this suggest except more chances for confusion and money making by politicians and civil servants?