Any Recovery Must be Forged in White Heat

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Harold Wilson’s most famous speech, an extract of which is below.

In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the White Heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.

 

Said at Party Conference 1963, the ‘White Heat of technology’ speech outlined Wilson’s idea of Socialism: one built around using scientific knowledge and execution to increase the prosperity and happiness of the people. Wilson wrote later that his aspiration was to ‘replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British Labour’. The Ministry of Technology (known as MinTech) was set up by the Wilson administration and Tony Benn was its Minister for a period of time. Under Wilson, research and development (R&D) funding was beefed up enormously. Not all was rosy, as ideas about the scientific revolution were confused and differed wildly. While the country saw MinTech as a scientific institution, Wilson and Benn meant it as an industrial organisation, and operated it as such. In the end, MinTech was merged with the Board of Trade to create what we know now as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It was a sad fizzling out of a red hot scientific endeavour that had never really gotten off the ground in the first place.

But I’m not here to dwell on the past, although the present is rather gloomy. We have some of the worst R&D spending as a percentage of GDP in the developed world. Want to know how bad it is? Belgium spends more in terms of GDP than we do (our 1.77% to their 1.99%). In 2010, the annual science budget was frozen at £4.6bn. That’s about 0.17% of government spending. Vince Cable calls it ‘generous’. We fall short of the R&D target the government has set and the target the EU has set, and quite badly in fact. As Europe’s third largest economy, we contribute peanuts to the European Space Agency, while France and Germany make up about 50% of ESA’s budget. For a country that was not even very long ago at the uttermost forefront of scientific research and discovery, our neglect of R&D is shocking.

The people that do the research, that push the boundaries of human knowledge, the scientists, how are they treated? Well, the average salary for a research scientist in the UK is about £29,000. Just above the average wage. Now obviously this varies from field to field, but even the most highly paid scientific disciplines will earn you about £50k. Which incidentally, is the starting salary for a stock broker. A starting salary. I don’t even want to contemplate at what level the wages peak for them, and that’s not even including bonuses.

It’s time to prioritise, people. Who do we care more about: the people who ensure human progress towards a brighter future or what are essentially glorified gamblers?

Strangely, this attitude was fostered by Margaret Thatcher, a scientist by profession. As Secretary of State for Education and Science and then as PM, she forced government spending to be a monetary investment, with full returns and all. Combine this with an absolute adoration of the financial sector and soon a culture for ignoring science and long-term thinking in general develops. Science won’t always give you short-term monetary returns, but its benefits in the future are more fantastic than any micro-second stock trade. Thatcher, as a scientist, should have known that.

Such blatant disregard for science and research cannot be allowed to continue. We will never solve any of the world’s major issues, from climate change to overpopulation without a solid dedication to R&D. Imagine if only a fraction of the money used to bail out the banks or fight in Iraq was used for scientific research. We’d be halfway to Mars by now. Closer to home, we will never achieve sustainable growth without a healthy manufacturing sector, and we will never foster a healthy manufacturing sector without a flourishing (and more importantly) well funded scientific community. Our space sector employs 29,000 people and is growing at 7.5% a year (fun fact: 80% of fridge-sized satellites are built in the UK), but a report by the Department for Business says that the British Space Agency is not funded well enough to provide support for a flourishing and prosperous sector of our economy. The furnaces of Britain, having lain dormant for decades, can be re-kindled once more by the White Heat of technology.

A scientific community doesn’t spring from pure money though, so as well as investing with cash we need to invest with education as well. Let’s be honest, our education results are pretty poor, especially in maths and the sciences, and Michael Gove’s re-writing (although I hardly think writing is the correct word, since it implies consideration and thought) will not help that. Science lessons need to be fun, engaging and most importantly, inspiring. How will we ever smash the darkness of human ignorance without enthusiasm?

Michael Gove, Vince Cable and the rest of this shambles government does not have the determination to do anything but build a shaky recovery built on debt. The question is, will a Labour government be Wilsonian in thought (not in execution hopefully) to bring about this scientific revolution? We can only hope (until they give us a decent policy process).