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12 March 2010

New lab tests

We need a scientific government for a scientific age.

By Michael Brooks

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.

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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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