£50m is very good news for graphene. But it is a very bad deal for science
The £50m that George Osborne has today announced to support further research into graphene is doubly welcome. Our researchers need the money, and it shows the government can move quickly when science itself senses a genuine revolution with the potential to transform industries. But when you look at the politics of the announcement, you can see that science is selling itself absurdly cheaply.
Reading the Chancellor's speech, it is clear that the role of the graphene announcement is to bolster the government's growth credentials, and in particular its hi-tech credentials. Here's what he said:
"My children are eight and ten years old.
I don’t want them to read about how China has just built the world’s most advanced aircraft; how India is leading the globe in computer design; and have to say to my children: that used to be Britain.
I want Britain to be the home of the greatest scientists, the greatest engineers, the greatest businesses – a land of innovators. And we can be.
The sacrifices we make, that’s what they’re for
The determination I show, that’s what drives me.
Tomorrow’s world is being shaped here in Manchester.
Manchester, the first City of the Industrial Revolution.
The city where the first computer was built
Where Rutherford split the atom.
And the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party.
Manchester, home to the two brilliant scientists I met this morning who have just been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.
Their prize was for the discovery of a substance called Graphene.
It’s the strongest, thinnest, best conducting material known to science, to be used in everything from aircraft wings to microchips.
The inventors could have gone anywhere in the world to conduct their research.
But they chose the University of Manchester.
Now countries like Singapore, Korea and America are luring them with lucrative offers to move their research overseas.
But they want to stay here, in Britain.
They think it’s the best country in the world for them and their work.
We’ve already protected the science budget.
And today, I am confirming that on top of that we will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel-prize winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor.
And we’re going to fund the frontier of high performance computing as well to give the best tools to our designers and engineers.
Let’s stop thinking that the only growth that can happen in Britain takes place in one industry in one corner of our country
We’re going to get Britain making things again."
This extended passage on hi-tech growth in Osborne's bigest speech for months is entirely logical.
Week by week, growth is growing as a political issue. The deficit and the need to cut it remains the number one political fact. But every bit of bad news for the economy strengthens the issue of growth. There has been so much bad news recently that now it is snapping at the heels of the deficit. This is why the Chancellor felt obliged not only to address the issue of growth in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, but also to announce several initiaitives (of which graphene was but one).
When politicians look at growth, science and technology have a special place, a symbolic role. Voters know that we face ever stiffer competition from overseas, especially emerging economies such the two Osborne mentions, India and China. In some vague way, they believe that science and technology can deliver the well paid jobs we will need in future. What a politician needs to do is to show that they understand this imperative, and - critically - that they understand how to make sure the country seizes this hi-tech future.
This is the political purpose of the graphene announcement, just as it is the political purpose behind David Cameron's Tech City internet glitz in East London.
Seen this way, it becomes clear what a gigantic opportunity the current political focus on growth provides for S&T. To the politicians, the £50m being spent on graphene (and the millions also going to high performance computing) is chicken feed if it affects their ability to win the next election. And there is no way for any political party to construct a credible story on growth without being credible on hi-tech growth. This dependency provides the political leverage that, used correctly, would allow scientists and hi-tech firms to restore all their budget cuts, and then some.
To exploit the leverage is in principle straightforward. First, the S&T lobby needs to capture the citadel called hi-tech growth in the public's mind. Second, every time a politican of any party tries to stand atop the citadel and speak to the voters, the S&T lobby needs to extract a toll.
The practicalities are equally doable, if the will is there. We need the leading institutions representing scientists and hi-tech industries to come together and find a single voice with the money and resources to make a noise in public. We are talking about lobbying as it is understood in Washington or Brussels. Then they need to lay out what needs to be done in a landmark report that includes red lines on spending and other policies. And from then on, when a politician of any party tries to use the symbolism of hi-tech by scattering a few crumbs around, they need to shout them down.
In short, scientists have the economic arguments on their side. Bodies like the OECD are telling developed economies to increase spending on the knowledge economy even as they cut budget deficits. But in a post-rational world, winning the intellectual argument is not enough. Rather than do what's right for the economy, politicians prefer to subsidise things that deliver votes, whether that is the NHS, weekly bin collections or tuition fees. To win the political battle, scientists will have to give up on the establishment era lobbying they are used to and embrace the brutal modern world of politics.
Do this and the politicians will soon reappear - and with a lot more money than £50m. They know that JFK, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair built their empires on an optimism that, in current economic conditions, cannot be delivered without the assistance of science.