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?

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times