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2 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:12am

Bill Bryson: in defence of science

Questions Cable's claim that cuts "screen out mediocrity".

By Jon Bernstein

Earlier this week I was in the company of Bill Bryson, interviewing him for a piece that will appear in the New Statesman in due course.

As befits a man of many talents we discussed a range of subjects including higher education (he is the Chancellor of Durham University), the future of journalism (he is a former sub-editor on the Times), the cultural evolution of Britain (it’s 15 years since his best-selling Notes from a Small Island was first published) and… er, facial hair (“Why the beard?” I asked impertinently, and he answered).

But we started with a subject that is very close to his heart, both as a university chancellor and author of three books on the subject: science.

And in a week when it was revealed that the government was considering 15 per cent cuts to the £1.6bn research budget shared by higher education institutions, it seemed like a good time to ask him for a defence of science — especially as the Business Secretary Vince Cable has suggested that cuts to funding may actually help “screen out mediocrity”. Bryson said:

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In any area of human endeavour there is going to be mediocrity. You’re going to find people who get money that they shouldn’t get. I’m sure if we walked down the street from the New Statesman we can find plenty of people who get paid much more than they deserve for the amount of work that they do.

And, of course, that must exist in science funding as it does anywhere else. But there is this idea that there is a recognisable amount of fat that you can just lop off and it won’t impact on the amount of quality research or the amount of production is a pretty risky attitude.

Sounds like special pleading…

Well, yes, you would expect that when faced with any kind of cut. If you were the head of an agency like English Heritage and you were facing some big cuts I expect you would argue against them too because they are vital to you. But with science we can make a very good case. For example, with medical research where we really make people better.

It may be the 15 per cent that is complete rubbish and not necessary, but I think that within that 15 per cent there will be useful things, and those useful things will clearly add to the sum of human knowledge.

More in the magazine soon. You can next see Bryson crusading on behalf of the scientific community at Royal Society event called ‘Seeing Further’ in Durham on 19 October co-hosted by the university’s Institute of Advanced Study.