The age of scientific discovery is over

This month, scientists based in Britain have won two Nobel Prizes — but the celebrations have been m

The message pages of the Nobel Prize website made for moving reading after the announcement that Robert Edwards, the British pioneer of in vitro fertilisation, had won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. "Congratulations. You have helped to put smiles on a lot of faces," said Mkpouto of Nigeria. "Congrats, dear doctor. Thanks for my beautiful niece. God bless you!" said Nathalí Romero Aleán of Colombia. Edwards's work has changed lives around the world.

On 5 October, a day after Edwards's prize was announced, two scientists based in Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Andre Geim and Konstantin "Kostya" Novoselov, Russian-trained physicists, took up positions at the University of Manchester nine years ago. It sounds like cause for a great British celebration, but the jubilation has been muted.

“Geim and Novoselov could be the last of their kind," warns Imran Khan, head of the Campaign for Science and Engineering - formerly known as Save British Science. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, is similarly gloomy. "That these two people are here is a testament to the strength of our university system," he says. "But people thinking about coming to the UK now might not make the same decision."

The sense of pessimism among those working in British scientific research is profound. Research budgets will soon be cut by levels that could prove disastrous. The Royal Society has warned that a severe enough cut, coupled with proposed immigration caps that would keep talented foreign scientists from working in the UK, could mean it's "game over" for science in this country. British science is ranked second in the world, behind the United States, but that won't last long if the government does not change its plans. "There aren't many arenas where the UK can say convincingly that it's number two in the world," Rees says. "Let's not jeopardise one of them."

It was the robustness of British science that attracted the Manchester physicists, who are both supported by the Royal Society. Their prize is for the work they have conducted in isolating and researching the properties of a novel form of carbon called graphene, a material that could revolutionise the electronics industry. The newspapers have made much of the playfulness of Geim's research (he won a satirical "Ig Nobel" prize in 2000 for levitating frogs with magnets and co-authored a paper with his pet hamster). But Geim and Novoselov are extremely smart and resourceful experts in electronics and their prize-winning breakthrough came as a result of a purposeful search for materials with unexploited electronic properties.

Eureka moment

In graphene, carbon is laid out in a hexagonal pattern to create a thin sheet of atoms, like microscopic chicken wire. Initially, the researchers were looking to create thin-film carbon electronics by filing down a block of graphite. That approach failed. Then, in 2004, they saw a colleague cleaning a graphite block by attaching Scotch tape to the graphite and peeling it away. Geim and Novoselov realised this might peel away a thin layer of carbon. They created a pencil scrawl, laid tape over it and pulled. Under an electron microscope, they saw that the tape held a sheet of graphene.

Their breakthrough is already changing the electronics industry. Graphene has extraordinary properties. First, it conducts electricity with very little resistance. Thus, graphene-based electronics don't waste power as heat - so they don't require energy-guzzling cooling techniques - and operate using very little electricity. Graphene is also highly efficient at converting light into electricity and vice versa. Given these properties, it will be the material of choice for the next generation of solar panels, televisions and computer circuitry.

Geim's and Novoselov's prize came quickly because progress in the field is so fast and the Nobel Committee didn't want their contribution to be overshadowed by developments. The same cannot be said of Edwards's prize. The reason for the 30-year delay is worth noting.

“The Nobel is a vindication. It is recognition for IVF research as good medical science," says Edwards's former colleague Simon Fishel, who runs the Care Fertility clinics. In his view, the medical establishment has distanced itself from IVF research for three decades - and Britain is now paying the price.

In the run-up to the birth of Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, Edwards and his collaborator Patrick Steptoe were refused funding by the Medical Research Council. Documents made public this year show that among the factors which influenced the decision were a desire to limit population and concerns over safety. Edwards and Steptoe found funding elsewhere and pressed on. The result was a birth that changed the fertility landscape - but not enough for IVF researchers to be accepted as bona fide scientists. The expense and difficulty of IVF treatment caused some scientists to label it a con. That stigma is slowly being eroded as the number of IVF children grows.

“It's taken 30 years and four million children to realise it's not a con. It works and it's a routine medical practice," Fishel says.

Poor relations

Government funders remain cautious. But Fishel and his colleagues aren't too worried about the axe hanging over science funding; they don't get any public money anyway. They are still handcuffed by government regulation, however, because of which Britain's pre-eminence in the field has been squandered. Fishel warns: "It's good to have regulation, but we have become the poor cousins. Researchers in several areas of the world are rocketing ahead."

If the perfect-storm scenario - immigration caps and a funding vacuum - arises, British pre-eminence in other areas of science will suffer similar decline. UK investment in science has now sunk to the point where it is proportionately lower than in almost every other developed country. France, Germany, Singapore, China and the US are all increasing their funding and trying to entice foreign scientists. "If it's looking bright there, and gloomy here, the most talented people will go," Rees says. Novoselov has already warned that researchers such as he and Geim have many options.

The knock-on effects are likely to be horrendous. A 2007 government report showed that science-based industries cluster around centres of academic excellence. What's more, the best researchers pull in the best students. "The Nobel laureates are incredibly important role models - when you're a young scientist, you look to these people as heroes," says Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London. But even the presence of Nobel winners can't overcome a lack of funds. "There's been a very large axe over all of us for years," Rohn says. "More and more of my colleagues are bailing out."

Michael Brooks is the New Statesman's science correspondent and author of "13 Things That Don't Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Times" (Profile Books, £8.99)

The fightback has begun

Facing the dual threat of cuts and an immigration cap, Britain's scientists are mobilising for action. The Science Is Vital campaign, started by Jennifer Rohn at University College London, wants the government to recognise the importance of science and not reduce funding. Boosted by support from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Rohn and her organising committee (which includes the former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris) are driving a concerted programme of lobbying, letter-writing and protesting in an attempt to bring about a change in government policy.

So far, the petition has over 26,000 signatories, drawn mainly from science and academia, though not exclusively - the comedians Dara Ó Briain and Robin Ince and the Labour MPs Andrew Smith and Mark Lazarowicz have also added their names to the list.

“We have everyone from musicians to soldiers and housewives recognising the importance of maintaining a strong science base in this country," Rohn says.

Eight Nobel laureates - including this year's physics prizewinners Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov - have been petitioning the government on the immigration cap, arguing that it is not just Britain's institutions that have attracted global talent, but that our "inclusive culture" has also made a difference.
Michael Brooks

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 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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