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What have the noughties done for science?

Susan Watts | 17:16 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The deputy head was still trying to shout to me about his school's values as the band struck up with a shrill whistle.

Local dignitaries and former staff started jiggling to the music. But most surprising perhaps was that all this razzmatazz was to celebrate the opening of a new science wing.

What an eye opener to see the whole of the Sawston Village College near Cambridge so excited about science.

Their guest of honour, the Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir John Sulston, sent his own children here, and we were there to ask him what he thinks the past decade has done for science.

And here was one answer right in front of our eyes. An impressive new building, sparkling equipment, and children involved, excitedly, in science experiments.

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For the time being there is more money for science at the end of this first decade of the 21st Century, and a feeling of cautious confidence too.

The children were surrounded by old science lab favourites - the small "pop" of an explosion as they slid a burning splint into a test tube of hydrogen, and more modern additions too - jelly babies on cocktail sticks, wedged across tubes of liquorice - a visual aid for students learning about the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule.

_46711420_hubblespacetelescope_ap.jpg It was Sir John who led the UK's contribution to the Human Genome project, which produced a read out of the DNA code that makes a human a human.

The international project opened a decade some thought might not get started at all.
The Millennium Bug was set to strike at the heart of our electronic-dependent world. It did not, the machines were okay.

What began instead was a decade of astonishing scientific endeavour. Stem cells held out the promise of rejuvenation, fertility techniques allowed us to screen out disease and think about shaping our own evolution.

The Hubble Space Telescope looked out to the edge of the Universe and far back in time, and we wondered about intelligent life elsewhere as we found more and more planets around other stars.

The Large Hadron Collider tried to tell us more about how it all began, until it broke.

I asked Sir John how significant a moment it was when the working draft of the Human Genome was announced at the start of the decade.

"I think philosophically very significant because the idea of a species evolving from a 4.5 billion year process now being able to read its own DNA... I don't believe that's happened before. It epitomises our strength as an intelligent, thinking and transcendently thinking organism."

But a lot of promises were made back then, about revolutionising medicine.

"Inevitably in the excitement, all sorts of examples were given - that this would be important in medicine, and so on. But I always contended the most important part was the foundational aspect, knowing our genome, and knowing lots of other genomes... and comparisons between all those is the most powerful tool."

Sir John warned though about taking short cuts.

"The whole thing is being oversold by some. For example people who offer to scan your genome and offer to tell you what your medical condition is likely to be - this is almost entirely rubbish at the moment. Understanding which genes are involved in which processes, to build up the entire network of genetic pathways that make a human being is a multi-decade long job."

He worries that the decade has seen what he calls a "channelling" effect - with researchers asked to focus on work with an obvious ability to create immediate profit.

"Now there's no harm in that in a sense it's a win-win situation: do good science, get lots of profit. But if you neglect all sorts of other areas, and particularly neglect the future then we're in trouble. It's very important... to fund research which doesn't have any immediate utility necessarily, but looks as though it may be important in the future."

Sir John told me about what he had said to the children of Sawston College earlier that day.

"I was saying that I personally had found tremendous excitement and joy in science. I recalled how excited I was learning about things at school. And then I talked about how some of them would make basic discoveries which would change our understanding of everything, how some of them would make things which would make society better."

I am sure that hearing from a Nobel Prize winner would help to drive the students to great heights of ambition. But I suspect their enthusiasm can be traced just as firmly to the energy of the team of science teachers at their school.

Given the problems their generation will face - such as finding enough food and clean energy for a growing population - science education will need to be perceived as being not just for scientists, but for everybody.

That way more people will understand something of the nature of relative risks, and about the power and limitations of science in future decades.


  • Comment number 1.

    Education seems to think that everyone should be a scientist. It would make more sense to take those children who are inclined to math and science and provide them with a proper place to apply those skills. We make children with a scientific mind and torture them with poetry and take students with an interest in poetry and force upon them math and science. All seems counter productive and if you argue this all makes better citizens....where is the proof. Russia, Japan and China created Technology and Science centers for high school students and that is how they caught up with the West. I am not suggesting forced entry or Spartan enviornments but do suggest that those so inclined should be able to concentrate in areas of interest. A generalist can do many things poorly.

  • Comment number 2.

    One only has to look at the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded annually which are Science or Engineering based to see why Britain is in a mess of trouble. Couple that with the fact that British investors only appear interested in "prestige" projects, such as the World's fastest car or such like, and we can see that our elite really doesn't have a clue as to how to engineer a sustainable future for Britain's hoi poloi. This being the case, is the self-professed "elite" anything of the kind? Pandemic scares and pharmaceutical investment may be a smart move for the short-termist City investor - a kinder alternative to the "armament" model of economic stimulus favoured throughout the previous century, but where is the money going to come from to pay for it? After all, one cannot conquer new resource-rich lands with pharmaceuticals. Can one?
    If David Cameron is genuine in his declared aim to mend Britian via communities, then he really is going to have to ditch the City, permanently, provide micro-finance solutions for communities to recreate themselves from the base up and, provide their children with the sort of educational opportunities necessary to see such initiatives through for future generations. That's what many people voted for in 1979 and, were subsequently bitterly disappointed. Have the Conservatives come far enough to have learned that lesson yet? One can but hope.


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