Science cannot be a minion to wealth

A journalist without the pretensions of a scientist -- that's how JOHN MADDOX, editor of Nature for 15 years, would like to see himself. On his recent tour of India, Maddox talked to SUMANTA PAL on what went wrong with science and scientific establishments in Europe after the Second World War. Though a strong supporter of nuclear programmes, Maddox warns about storage problems and misuse of nuclear energy. An admirer of France's science policy planning in the 1970s, Maddox predicts that efforts to link research with the creation of wealth may have disastrous consequences for the UK.

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What do you think went wrong with scientific progress and the scientific establishments in Europe after the Second World War?
The Second World War was a period of rapid technical achievement. Radar, jet engines and nuclear energy were successfully put to use in a very short period of time. As a direct fallout, scientists in the West felt there was nothing that science couldn't achieve and got involved in adventurous projects. Instead of winning peace, it seemed the scientific community managed to achieve only the war.

The ambition to introduce faster and more efficient aircraft saw the arrival of the concorde. This huge bird, so successful in its earlier form of Second World War jets, proved to be thoroughly uneconomic. Scientists involved in the project overlooked the fact that though price did not matter in a war, it is crucial in a civilian economy. Such careless over-optimism led to the collapse of a number of projects on which a great deal of money had already been wasted.

A much bigger collapse was the amount of nuclear energy wasted. I personally think nuclear reactors would be essential in the coming century. However, the optimism with which nuclear scientists went about building nuclear reactors in the two decades after the War was impractical in the sense that they grossly underestimated the costs and safety problems. Scientific progress in the post- World War era saw colossal waste of public money and energy.

How is it that France was able to take a lead over UK and Germany in scientific achievements, even though all three faced severe economic crises after the War?
At the end of the War, France found itself saddled with a war-ravaged economy and empty coffers. Universities and public research organisations were not well organised and scientific research was in bad shape. Things were no different in UK and Germany. But, in the 1970s, there was a dramatic change in France as people started feeling more energetic about scientific research in the country. The French not only realised the need for long-term strategic plans, they formulated and stuck to viable policies.

In UK and Germany, scientific research was endangered by narrow public policies. In UK, Margaret Thatcher's government accused the scientific establishment of draining state coffers. On the other hand, when the socialists came to power in France in the 1980s, it was decided to expand the network of public research organisations. France also enjoyed the fruits of sticking with its long-term policies, while UK and Germany found their policies wobbling. (Francois) Mitterand's ***(check spelling) socialistic model has seemed to work well in the capitalistic framework of the country. There was a time when French telephones were a joke. Today, France is the leader in telecom research, full of innovations and initiatives.

How would you respond to the British government's decision to link scientific research to wealth creation?
Expectations were high when Margaret Thatcher took over as the prime minister as she has been trained as a scientist. One hoped she would be better able to understand the difficulties in pursuing scientific research, particularly basic research, an area where fund allocations are usually low. Mrs Thatcher began well by promising to protect funds allotted for scientific research -- also called the science budget in UK -- against inflation. But when the government started feeling the pressure, it went back on its promise, seriously damaging the continuity of scientific research. I would say the science budget was quite high and could not be protected against something as high as the inflation was then.

Other promises of Mrs Thatcher also turned out to be unsound. The universities were in serious trouble as their budgets were slashed by as much as 13 per cent. But more seriously, the government refused to support agricultural research on the ground that the European Community had a food surplus.

The government has now decided that except particle physics and astronomy, all areas of research have to be linked to wealth creation. We still don't know how this is going to work, but the policy is certainly demoralising and may prove to be disastrous.

How would you assess the future role and significance of basic research, as opposed to applied research, when funds for basic research are being cut the world over?
I think the future role of basic research must be related to the specific needs of the country. If it is important for the country to make silicon chips, then a great deal has to be learnt about silicon. Such research then is called strategic research.

The trouble is that there are fields of research where new developments do not come about every day. Such research may be as diverse as use of light instead of electricity in transmitting computer signals or understanding the relationship between proteins and DNA molecules so that better drugs can be designed. Strategic research, as opposed to applied research, cannot directly result in wealth creation. But, carrying my example further, if we reach a better understanding of silicon through strategic research, we can manufacture better chips, which will in turn create wealth.

You have often suggested that research should be conducted in areas where one is at par, if not ahead, of other countries.
I think it would help. Though people in the UK were over-optimistic and unrealistic about costs in the 1950s, we have not managed too badly. UK concentrated on developing nuclear capabilities as it had the infrastructure, which would have otherwise been wasted in other areas. It is no wonder that UK built so many more nuclear plants. This is not to say that a country should not concentrate on new areas, but human resources and infrastructure should be the guiding factors for exploring new areas of research.

You recently remarked that science has travelled up the garden path and has almost reached a calamitous end. What future trends do you see in scientific research and where do we go from here?
I do believe science can benefit us greatly, particularly in the field of biology. I don't think this to be calamitous. But introduction of new technology will not be without other consequences. It seems to me that improvement in public health over the past 50 years has been quite astonishing, much of which was due to simple discoveries like antibiotics and even lasers to make surgical instruments. But each of these developments has had serious side effects.

Scientific achievements cannot be compared with waving a magic wand. People are willing to enjoy the benefits of science but are not prepared to accept the negative consequences. In case of nuclear power, for instance, somebody has to think about the safe storage of waste. The next 50 years will see great leaps in the field of genetic research. Perhaps genetic research will help us remove differences of skin colour, level of efficiency, even differences in patterns of behavior in the long run. We may be able to move towards a closer society once we understand the role and functions of genes.

You have been the editor of Nature for a good many years. How do you see the role of a science magazine today? Can you conceptually have a popular science magazine? Do you see yourself more as a scientist or a journalist?
To answer the last part of your question first: I am a journalist. As for the role of a science magazines, I think I will take the case of Nature as an example. Our readers are professional scientists. We publish new developments in science, including a lot of news. As far as the news coverage is concerned, one cannot differentiate between the kind of science story that a professional would be looking for and the kind of science news that the man on the street would be willing to read.

The real problem arises when we confront the question of idiom. The idiom of a science journal aimed at professionals has to be different from the idiom of a popular magazine. The marrying of interests is difficult here. In Nature, certain sections have been given the popular touch but, by and large, the magazine is meant to be read by professionals. What may happen in the near future is that a single journal will have to split and try specialise in specific areas as well as specific audiences.

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