This week I went to see Brian Cox receive the IChemE’s Collier Medal for his outstanding contribution to the public understanding of science. The event was hosted by IET London and was free to attend. The auditorium was packed with a diverse crowd of young and old, male and female and while I am not sure all were engineers it was clear most were excited to see the iconic face of British science in person. I’ve created a Storify containing a number of tweets from the event here.
The event began with a series of four introductory talks from members of the IChemE and the sponsors EDF Energy. Russell Scott, President of the IChemE, described how the “Why Not Chem Eng?” campaign had helped double the number of chemical engineering students in the UK in a decade, turning around the previous trend of department closures. Vincent de Rivaz, Chief Exec of EDF Energy, commended Cox’s work in encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers, despite the difficulties current graduates face in an uncertain economic climate.
Stepping out through a wooden door from backstage, Cox began his lecture in front of a projection of 21 Albemarle St, the home of the troubled Royal Institution. Describing how the Royal Institution was created to champion science as the basis of economic and social development in the 19th century, Cox said the RI’s charter was as relevant today as in 1799. He wished that a science manifesto could be nailed to No10 while at the same time placing responsibility on scientists and engineers themselves, imploring them not just to do science but to promote it as well.
Although Cox would return to the importance of science and engineering as the basis for our future development, the majority of his talk was devoted to the big current challenges facing particle physics and cosmology. These, according to Cox, are:
- to explain why the fundamental particles (quarks, electrons and the like) possess two sets of heavier duplicates;
- to determine if the Higgs Boson discovered at the LHC is unique or a member of a family of Higgs particles, and thereby confirming whether the standard model of particle physics will outlive the theories of supersymmetry;
- and to find out the reason why the Universe is currently expanding at an accelerating rate.
Cox was at his best during this part of his talk, describing complex ideas without confusing or patronising; a clear demonstration of why he is so successful as a science communicator. For me, it brought back childhood memories of learning in amazement about the wonders of the Universe, watching the RI Christmas lectures on TV and being inspired to study science.
Finally, Cox returned to his argument about the critical importance of science and engineering. He highlighted the apparent paucity of science funding in the UK and its decline since the 1970s by asking us to “Spot the Science Budget” in this infographic. He imagined a scenario where the next PM would first commit the government to return the science budget to its 1970 levels and then give a speech announcing how science and knowledge would be placed at the heart of the county’s future development. Subsequently asked if politicians were beginning to see the value of this argument, Cox said he believed they were, especially as they now understood the economic case for science. However, he indicated more work could be done by scientists and engineers to take the message to the public at large, truly making it a central electoral issue. Finally, Cox was asked if the UK was the world leader in science communication. He agreed, recognising the work of others in the field, and stating that the UK’s strength in science communication should be the basis of its future strength in science and engineering.
As a scientist, how do I feel about Cox’s statements around the importance of science and research, and the need for it be given a larger share of the budget? Naturally, I am sympathetic to this view even if some perceive proving the economic benefits of publicly-funded research to be a murky business. Given the short time available, Cox could obviously not delve into the nuances of his manifesto to make Britain “the best place in the world to do science”, (it was discussed in a bit more detail during his Faraday Lecture). The devil is always in the detail- how would this money be spent and who would decide (see this piece by Kieron Flanagan in the Guardian Political Science Blog)? And would such a beneficent Prime Minister expand the science budget with “no strings attached” or demand demonstrable economic and social returns? Cox has clearly moved from being the charismatic face of science communication to a political campaigner for science and an advocate for the extension of its role in many aspects of policy-making. At the present time, a more eloquent and charismatic campaigner science could not ask for and, given Cox’s public profile, a campaigner that politicians may find hard to ignore.