Monday, 30 November 2009

Wanted: new merchants of light

Modern problems of climate and ageing will only be solved if we value young talent in science
Martin Rees

Science is an unending quest. It is often overlooked, but it is always — metaphorically and actually — lighting our way. Isaac Newton famously said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This simple statement captures the essence of scientific endeavour.
Today, the Royal Society launches a year of activities to mark its 350th anniversary. We shall be highlighting how science, technology and engineering can help to meet the challenges of the coming decades, as well as their role in education and culture. We shall mainly be looking forward, but we shall also celebrate our history by widening access to our fascinating archives. A new online resource called Trailblazing will enable people across the world to dip into some of the great scientific achievements of the past 350 years, as chronicled in the society’s journals.
The scientists who published these journals back in the 17th and 18th centuries were, in their motives and attitudes, very like their present-day counterparts. They were breaking new ground. They were not afraid to challenge the status quo and they were often driven by a desire to improve the plight of mankind. But whereas modern scientific literature is generally specialised and technical, the personality of these pioneers shines through more clearly, and their writing is more individual and anecdotal.
Some breakthroughs have become so familiar to us today that we take them for granted: Volta’s first electric battery; Talbot’s early work in photography; and Edward Stone, the vicar who wrote to the Royal Society detailing his experiments using dried, powdered willow bark to cure fevers, which led to the production of aspirin. Are there many houses in the UK that do not contain batteries, photographs or aspirin?
There are those who challenged the orthodoxy of their era: Benjamin Franklin flying his kite in a storm to prove that lightning is electricity rather than a supernatural force; and William Buckland’s fossils, which showed that life had existed on Earth for millions of years — challenging the generally held views of creation at the time.
Other papers describe work that has fundamentally changed the lifespan of modern Man: Boyle’s 1666 paper on an early blood transfusion from one dog to another; Sloane and Birch’s earliest accounts of inoculations for diseases such as smallpox. And, more recently, the work of Howard Florey and his team who, in the 1940s, made the breakthrough that led penicillin to become the mass-produced antibiotic that goes on saving lives today.
Then there are those whose work has raised possibilities that are still opening out before us. Newton’s theory on light and colours continues to provide the basis for theoretical physics. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities for improving human health that will be facilitated by Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA.
Stephen Hawking’s paper on black holes, each hundreds of millions of times more massive than the Sun, asks as many questions as it answers. James Lovelock explored the need for geoengineering our planet to save it from the threat of climate change.
Celebrating the history of science reminds us how crucial its achievements have been in our everyday lives. Science helps to feed and clothe us, keep us warm and healthy, and it helps us to communicate and travel. Often the most important advances are unpredictable outcomes of scientific curiosity, where the discoverers could not conceive how their work would eventually be applied. We have no crystal ball that allows us to predict the detailed course of scientific discovery. However, we can be sure that young people today will live their lives in a world where science — and the way it is applied — will loom ever larger. Issues such as ageing, genetics, health, climate change, biodiversity, communications and the exploration of space will present opportunities and challenges that we must be ready to meet.
We in the UK are second only to the US in terms of scientific output; on some measures, we lead the world. But the research base is a complex and vulnerable ecosystem, and we must not lose our global standing. The Far East is developing fast and President Obama has given America’s already world-leading scientific community a massive boost — in substance and not just in rhetoric. Our success in attracting and retaining mobile talent will be at risk unless we raise our game.
We should celebrate science both for what it has done and what it can do. What could inspire young people more than the challenge of finding treatments and cures for debilitating or deadly diseases, or clean energy for the developed and the developing world? The “ingenious and curious gentlemen” who established the Royal Society in 1660 enjoyed speculation and sought enlightenment — they were, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, “merchants of light”.
Isaac Newton “saw further” because of the scientific enthusiasm that surrounded him. Now, as the Royal Society celebrates its 350th anniversary, it is more important than ever for the UK to value new knowledge — and to apply it optimally, for our country’s sake and that of the world.
Lord Rees of Ludlow is President of the Royal Society