Guest post by Roger Highfield
Author and Director of External Affairs, Science Museum.
Science is the most significant achievement of our species and, if we are to prosper, we need it now more than ever, as geopolitical shifts, twists and tensions propel us into an era of unprecedented uncertainty.
I have known about the extraordinary power of rational thinking ever since I gazed up at the moon one night in July and realised that, through the appliance of science, two men had just walked on its powdery grey surface. Again and again I have seen how we have thrived on science’s rigorous culture of evidence-gathering, scepticism, testing and provisional consensus-forming.
There was the day that I found that I could study a film a few molecules thick, with the help of a nuclear reactor. Or when I played with an iPad for the first time, and it seemed almost magical. Or when my mother, drowning with pneumonia, was brought back from the brink in a north London hospital.
When it comes to showing how science and engineering shape our future, the evidence from the past is overwhelming. Every day I walk past a succession of strange and wondrous objects in the Making the Modern World Gallery of the Science Museum.
Some of them may not be as elegant as those in an art gallery but they all have beautiful and important stories to tell: the DNA model of Jim Watson and Francis Crick that revealed the secret of life; the Bessemer converter that launched The Steel Age; the glass incubator that allowed the first test tube babies to develop, paving the way for a reproductive science revolution.
The power of science is irrefutable when you take a moment to think about what we take for granted in modern life: transplants that would have been unthinkable before the era of antibiotics; the ability to fly around the world; a tsunami of information and a degree of choice that is staggering, if not bewildering. The impact of science on everyday life is ubiquitous, indisputable and increasing.
The current Government, to its credit (see its Industrial Strategy and recent investment in research and development), has realised that scientific research is a central pillar of any advanced economy. That may seem obvious but I can remember the dark days of British research some three decades ago, when officials from the Treasury told a Select Committee that there was no relationship between research and the health of the economy. That was when the President of the Royal Society, the Nobel prizewinner George Porter, told me that the morale of the UK scientific community had fallen to its lowest point in the 20th century. He warned that ‘we shall soon live in a country which is backward not only in its technology and standard of living but in its cultural vitality.’
Today UK science has enjoyed a revival: as one sign of this, the pressure group Save British Science is now the Campaign for Science and Engineering. But rather than being starved of resources, recent months have seen a different, concerning trend of active opposition: some have derided experts, others have sought the ‘authenticity’ of anecdote.
There is nothing palatable about the post-truth era, when facts are cherry-picked or invented to make up any narrative you like, when there is ‘policy-based evidence making’ and a move to curtail any science that challenges policy and dogma with inconvenient truths.
I believe that science – which is increasingly open, international and interdisciplinary – will play a critical role in the coming era of, for want of a better name, BREX-UMP. That is why I am backing the March for Science: today, more than ever before, we need facts, evidence and rational thinking.
Yes, scientific research is central to any modern economy. But its impact is so much greater than that. We also need science to develop solutions to tackle global challenges, from climate change to sustainable energy to ecosystem destruction to the burden of ageing populations. And when we back science, we create opportunities. Not just new opportunities but ones that are unimaginable.
This march is not just to highlight the mindset that we will need to tackle the most pressing problems that the world faces today, it is about showing solidarity with future generations as well. Yes, that much is at stake.