New lab tests

We need a scientific government for a scientific age.

Over-achiever of the year so far is surely the US energy secretary, Steven Chu. Not content with working 80-hour weeks in government, he has squeezed some scientific research into his schedule. His latest discovery, the result of a collaboration with two other physicists, has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The research is the most accurate test yet of Einstein's general theory of relativity. It's not going to win Chu a Nobel Prize - he's already got one anyway - but it is an impressive piece of work. Relativity says that time slows down when gravity is strong. A clock placed in the lobby of a skyscraper, for example, will gradually slow compared with a clock on the top floor, where earth's gravitational pull is very slightly weaker. Chu and his colleagues have tested this to show that Einstein's prediction is accurate to seven parts per billion.

Chu's achievement is a warning against those who think impressive science is the preserve of expensive projects. There were no trips into space for Chu's experiment: it was all done in a standard physics laboratory. In the age of the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project and the orbiting white elephant known as the International Space Station, there's still a lot you can do with a prepared mind and a well-equipped university laboratory.

Not that science doesn't need grand projects. Chu would be the first to argue that we need big science as well as small. And he gets to make that argument where it matters: at the heart of government. With Chu's appointment, Obama made it clear that science is not a peripheral issue, but a major player in addressing the issues that politicians face today.

Chu's UK counterpart, Ed Miliband, read philosophy politics and economics. Miliband's shadow, Greg Clark, is also an economist. It's true that the science minister, Paul Drayson, has research experience - a PhD in robotics and years spent in industry - but, well, he's the science minister. In this day and age, experienced scientists should be working in roles where their political clout goes beyond divvying up the research budget. Here's an idea. Scientists repeatedly score significantly higher than politicians in surveys of public trust. I'd like to take this opportunity to tempt a few of our most eminent minds out of the lab for a spell. If a Nobel laureate can work at the heart of US government and still participate in the odd scientific breakthrough, the same could happen here. We could have a scientific government for a scientific age. The campaign slogan practically writes itself.

Michael Brooks is a consultant to the New Scientist

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Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.