George Osborne tours the labs researching graphene at Manchester. Photo: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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EU membership is crucial to Britain’s science excellence

Osborne can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes; if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated.

Last month top people from science and industry assembled in Manchester to work out how to start the long-awaited graphene revolution.

In essence, graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, an atomic arrangement that gives the material highly desirable properties, such as almost unparalleled electrical conductivity and a strength tens of times that of steel. The material is flexible, super-thin (each sheet is just one atom thick), light and transparent, a combination of properties that makes graphene a potentially revolutionary material for the electronics and mobile-phone industries, among others.

In 2004 two researchers at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, discovered how to make graphene using a graphite pencil and a piece of sticky tape. It looked as if we had an easy technological win on our hands. Geim and Novoselov were knighted, they won a Nobel prize, and the UK government poured £60m into the Manchester-based National Graphene Institute, opened by George Osborne in March.

The Chancellor had already announced that the NGI would have a sibling: the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. This will have a similar budget, sit alongside the NGI in Manchester and enable graphene-based products to be “fast-tracked from the drawing board to the market”, as the Treasury press release put it.

Easier said than done. In some ways discovery has been the easy bit: most of the work lies in finding ways to mass-produce the material and incorporate it. So far, few people – if any – are making money from graphene.

A glance at the agenda for last month’s assembly makes that clear. More than a decade after the material was discovered, dedicated experts are still talking about “Getting graphene to market”, “Emerging trends and opportunities”, “Bridging the gap from lab potential to commercial reality” and, perhaps most important for British science, “Graphene in the European Union: future and emerging technologies”.

With a referendum on this country’s membership of the EU now a certainty, it is important to recognise that great facilities are useless unless put to use by people with rich ideas and creative imagination. Britain has more than its fair share of fine minds, but the UK is so good at science these days because its scientists are able to collaborate with the best in the world – many of whom are working in other EU countries.

It’s not jingoistic to say that Britain is a scientific powerhouse. These shores produce 16 per cent of the world’s highest-quality research yet they host just 1 per cent of the world’s population. EU funding comes “on the basis of scientific excellence”, according to the policy documents, and British science clearly is excellent: it pays into the pot of EU science money but gets back £1.40 for every £1 it contributes.

If we leave Europe because of the referendum, we stand to lose more than just money. Collaboration will become a problem. European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from three different EU member (or associate) states. Today, good science is almost always collaborative: over one-third of the best journal papers result from international collaborations.

George Osborne has been relatively benign towards science up to now and makes no secret of his sense that scientific research underpins a strong economy. The stance on Europe taken by some members of his party threatens that. He can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes, but if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated, without influence or funding. And no wonder material on earth will change that.

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 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.