This year is the three hundredth anniversary of the passing of the Longitude Act, and David Cameron’s Tory government is glamming up the archaic principle to impose on 21st Century researchers. The Longitude Prize, first introduced back in 1714, is intended to inspire armchair scientists to become more active in the direction science moves in; instead of letting academics and business leaders govern the flow of science funding.
There are, of course, benefits to the act. Supporters note that it will accelerate the development of crucial drugs, intended to prevent anti-bacterial immunity. Whilst I’m sure this will be the case, I believe that funding for science is not simply an investment into a later technology. However, with the Nobel Prize for physics being awarded to a discovery with ‘significant commercial potential’, arguably for the third time in ten years, maybe the way that the general public perceive science funding is different to mine. In an age of continuing austerity, it is right that all government spending is scrutinised, however it should not be the case that all taxpayers’ money is judged using the same materialistic criteria.
Ultimately, I like to think that science has moved on since the last time a British government offered a reward-for-science incentive. Scientific research is now a team sport, requiring expensive materials, high-tech laboratories and knowledge well surpassing that of a hobby scientist. Whereas in 1700’s, well off statesman could dabble with a little science in their spare time, the explosion of knowledge that we have witnessed in the previous few decades has all but guaranteed that the era of part-time researchers is well and truly behind us.
Finally, I feel like the big PR campaign around the award is being used to distract the public about the severe lack of government funding into scientific research. No amount of television time or large, corporate judging panels can plug the funding hole left by successive Westminster administrations. Whilst the prize money, set at an ambitious £10m, is by no means insignificant, I cannot help but wonder if it will be ‘money well spent’. Universities are having budgets slashed, and are expected to produce the same level of outstanding work that has become synonymous with British scientists, without the help and support from the ruling parties. In conclusion, I feel like the prize is no more than an expensive gimmick, with little chance of engaging the public with the complicated web of science funding. I can only hope that the incentive will lead to some good breakthroughs in one of sciences biggest challenges.
Matthew Christopher Whitehill
Political landscapes are constantly changing particularly in the United States where the President’s 2015 Budget proposes an increased $135.4 billion Research & Development fund. While this is promising for science, the lack of actual scientific evidence sometimes used by politicians to gain votes and popularity is worrying. The involvement of Science can be a valuable asset to a politician and play a significant role in many aspects of decision-making.
Traditionally scientists have been thought to be the cornerstone of fact and rational logic which when used correctly can produce life-changing results. Politicians don’t have this luxury so have mastered the art of ‘framing’. This plays upon people’s inherent desire to make the most rational choice and therefore influences the way voters make their decisions by presenting only desirable ‘frames’.
This has led to a storm of competing claims that may be economical with the truth and can be manipulated to highlight the leading scientific pros or cons to change a voter’s mindset. These may also be ‘sugar-coated’ to strike a chord with the masses. Recently topics such as climate change and stem cell research have been at the forefront of conflicting interests.
President J.F. Kennedy proposed the ambitious objective to send an American to the Moon before the end of the 1960’s. This move was supported as much by the politicians as by the scientific community. There was extreme pressure to reinstate the USA as the dominant force in the Cold War. In 1969 his aspiration became reality and subsequently reached out to American voters’ sense of national pride. There is no denying that the by-products of their work have led to significant technological advances throughout modern society that could not have been foreseen.
Politics is a competition for the allocation of resources and can put extra strain on governments to decide where available assets should go; consequently this has created a need for scientific organisations to use lobbyists and large public relation campaigns involving high profile public figures.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) have issued a report named ‘Scientific Integrity in Policymaking’ to challenge the way in which George W. Bush’s administration had apparently distorted and disregarded scientific evidence to support its’ own political agenda. Furthermore there have been bills and amendments, which passed the review process, but were quashed and never gained a recorded vote. This begs the question what other deals and back channeling take place behind closed doors at the expense of the science.
Science through no fault of its own has been brought into the political arena. Scientific advice can and should be used for effective policymaking; unfortunately the democratic system has a vast array of political influences and self interest which reign supreme, keeping science in ‘check’.