On Wednesday, scientists at CERN finally found the Higgs boson – the hitherto hypothetical particle that gives the universe its mass – inside the Large Hadron Collider.
The development is already recognised worldwide as one of the defining moments in the modern history of physics.
Praising the researchers involved at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, David Cameron seized the opportunity to defend the coalition’s record on scientific investment:
“This government’s commitment to the science budget is without any doubt, not least because although we have had to make difficult cuts, we have preserved the science budget.”
This is only technically true. The Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010 froze Britain’s annual £4.6bn science budget: this actually meant a real terms cut of nearly 9% per annum, so one has to wonder what Cameron thinks ‘preservation’ means.
In fact, the government’s commitment to science over the past two years is extremely dubious – something to which Left Foot Forward has repeatedly drawn attention.
Their track record is characterised by a failure to recognise that championing scientific causes in word and deed yields both short and long-term economic results: reducing the deficit, a thriving research and development sector would also attract greater foreign investment in years to come and give Britain a chance of retaining its vaunted ‘knowledge economy’.
In February last year, the EU’s European Innovation Scorecard showed that in Britain’s public sector R&D expenditure was below the European average:
As it was in the private sector, too:
Several months later, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that:
“Failing to invest sufficiently in science and skills can be short sighted. The impact of such spending occurs in the long run, in the form of higher productivity and economic growth. Being able to compete with China in 10 years time requires investment in skills and research today.”
• Increased science funding would help reduce the deficit 12 Oct 2010
It’s only fair to point out that these failings are not unique to the coalition, but rather a consistent feature of British politics. Of the 650 MPs in the Commons, only one – Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat member for Cambridge – has a scientific background.
Interviewed yesterday on This Week, Professor Brian Cox succinctly highlighted the implications of such a disconnect:
“Britain’s political class has not been great at understanding science, promoting it, and to some extent supporting it.
Policy should be based on evidence and what you’re talking about is the scientific method. The other reason that it’s bad is that 43% of our GDP is based on knowledge-intensive services and industry, which rests on the university sector and the science budget.
The route to growth rests on [science] and if people don’t back that philosophically and politically, then we’re in trouble.”