The struggle over science
The struggle over science
A POINT OF VIEW
By Harold Evans
In his weekly opinion column, Harold Evans considers rising concern in the US over the Bush administration's hostility to science.
I used to get mad at the way it was left to America to bring to full fruition fine achievements by Britain's scientists, inventors and engineers. Take Alexander Fleming's penicillin, Frank Whittle's jet engine, Alan Turing's computer and Robert Watson Watt's radar.
All these breakthroughs found their fullest exploitation in the United States. Indeed, they all contributed to America's pre-eminence in science-based manufacturing and services.
Think of the personal computer and wonder drugs, of the jumbo jetliner, video games and the pacemaker, the laser that counts your groceries and the laser, or the global positioning satellite, that tells you to turn left at the roundabout.
Scientists are working on planet to planet communication
That is why there is furious bewilderment here in the universities and the higher levels of business at the chilly indifference - not to say hostility - of the Bush White House to science. Actually, I've seen a movie like this once before and I know how it ends.
When I was a science reporter in Britain in the 50s, it was a thrill to visit the centre of government research, the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, Middlesex. It was hallowed ground.
I was in the lab where Watson Watt did his breakthrough work on radar in time for the Royal Air Force to find the Luftwaffe in the invisible skies and win the Battle of Britain.
I stood in awe before that much-photographed early computer - the wall-length monster called ACE - designed in 1945 by the wartime code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was then the fastest in the world, spewing out instant answers to reams of calculations I was allowed to feed into its innards.
You would have thought that the National Physical Laboratory would be the darling of every British Government. Not so. I was invited to visit at that time because they were concerned the government did not fully appreciate that science in peace was as vital as science in war.
The researchers were doing what they could on a tiny budget and even that was about to be cut. Not just in the government, but in business and society, there was a general indifference to science and scientific education that seems odd today.
The consequence of that inertia in government and lethargy in business was that the US came to dominate the computer industry, despite all the brilliant work of Turing at Manchester University and others at Ferranti.
Young Americans are opting for better paid law and medicine over science and engineering and visa restrictions on bright foreign students further dilute the talent pool
The question now tormenting Americans - who don't have a natural aptitude for worry - is whether the same writing is on the wall for them. Vinton Cerf is one who thinks it is, and he is no ordinary hand-wringer....