Sir George Porter On British Science

A war surplus searchlight was the unlikely piece of equipment which a young English chemist, George Porter, pressed into the service of science during the late 1940s. As a Cambridge researcher following five years in the Royal Navy, he was investigating chemical reactions thought until that time to be instantaneous in nature and, thus, unmeasurable in the laboratory. Porter's ingenuity paid off Barely 20 years later, he shared the 1967 Nobel Prize in chemistry (with Manfred Eigen and Ronald Norr

The Scientist Staff
Jan 11, 1987
A war surplus searchlight was the unlikely piece of equipment which a young English chemist, George Porter, pressed into the service of science during the late 1940s. As a Cambridge researcher following five years in the Royal Navy, he was investigating chemical reactions thought until that time to be instantaneous in nature and, thus, unmeasurable in the laboratory. Porter's ingenuity paid off Barely 20 years later, he shared the 1967 Nobel Prize in chemistry (with Manfred Eigen and Ronald Norrish) for studies on what became known merely as "very fast" reactions. After serving for two decades as Director and Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Sir George Porter presides today over the Royal Society of London.

Unlike the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which has statutory duties as an arm of government, and in contrast to the academies of Eastern Europe, which are directly involved in the financing of science, the Royal Society is an entirely private, independent body. Traditionally close to government as a source of informed but informal advice, the Society has found itself drawn increasingly into public debate about the funding of research. It was this aspect of the Society's role with which Bernard Dixon, European editor of The Scientist, began his interview with Sir George Porter on November 19, 1986. This is an edited, shortened version of their talk.

Q: Given today's budgetary problems confronting British science, how does the Royal Society now see itself when representing the scientific enterprise in relation to government? As an advocate? Or simply as a body that provides advice on request?
PORTER: We give advice whether it is requested or not. Sometimes our committees and working parties—all of which are unpaid, by the way-are asked to examine particular questions. On other occasions we decide for ourselves that certain issues need attention.

Q: But there's little difference between offering unrequested advice and explicit lobbying.
PORTER: You're quite right. We try to be impartial, and to provide a range of options, but the message is usually quite clear. Most recently, the study our Science and Engineering Policy Studies Unit (SEPSU) conducted on behalf of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils provides some disquieting evidence about the current condition of U.K. science. For example, it reveals a relative decline in the number of papers written by scientists in Britain between 1973 and 1982, while Japan's share increased markedly. Even more telling, total citations to U.K. papers have been falling, as have citations per paper, while these figures have been rising rapidly in the case of Japanese publications. This suggests that appreciation of U.K. science has declined—it is having less impact in the world literature.

How Good is British Research?

Q: Presumably, this means a diminution in the quality of research in Britain's laboratories?
PORTER: The data indicate, but do not prove, such a decline, and this is very disturbing. While we need to remember that we still have a lead over Japan, France and West Germany, we have lost the large lead we enjoyed in 1973. Our performance is deteriorating, while that of these three competitors is advancing. And this cannot be a result of a reduced workforce: we have 1,000 more postdoctoral students today than there were 10 years ago.
Q: The answer surely must lie in inadequate funding?
PORTER: Again, we cannot demonstrate cause and effect. But the citation evidence, taken alongside that for cash inputs, is very persuasive. According to an analysis conducted by the Science Policy Unit at the University of Sussex at the same time as our SEPSU study, the United Kingdom was lower than France, West Germany, Holland or Japan in per capita government funding of academic and academically related research in 1982. In physics, both France and Germany spent more than twice as much. I'll resist the temptation to comment on the fact that we do manage to allocate as much as our competitors to research in sociology and politics.

Q: So you are in a sense lobbying the government for greater resources?
PORTER: Well, I see no point in simply complaining and demanding more money. We certainly and urgently need more applied research, more engineers, and more scientific entrepreneurs to create the new industrial revolution that will put Britain back in the first league. But the present government, like any other, has to decide between priorities—how much cash to allocate for science as against hospitals, pensions and other needs. And these other causes very often have much stronger voices. I feel increasingly, therefore, that we must lobby not just the government but the public, and convince the community at large of the value of investment in basic science. And remember "the public" includes politicians and civil servants, some of whom have the most extraordinary and wildly erroneous ideas about the nature of science.

Basic Versus Applied Science

Q: Isn't it becoming increasingly important to argue the case for pure science on essentially phony grounds? That is, by saying that it is really applied science?
PORTER: I wouldn't use the term phony. Science is part of our civilization, something that can be justified on cultural grounds alone as a means of extending our knowledge of the natural world. But if this were its sole justification, governments might well argue that science should be supported at the same level as the arts. Equally, we must reject the idea of adopting what was Japan's policy until recently—letting others do the fundamental work and then copying their products. Although management and marketing are important, what counts at the end of the day is having a better product to sell, and that increasingly depends on science.

We need to recognize that most, if not all, basic research does eventually benefit industry. Where some of our politicians go seriously wrong is in suggesting that people doing fundamental science should mend their ways and concentrate on short-term applications to get rich quick. It is not up to pure scientists to think continually of likely uses of their work. It is up to industry to be much more energetic in coming to the pure scientists and building on what they are doing. Many British companies even seem insufficiently serious about their own in-house research. We can't be sure about this because they do not have to declare their R&D spending publicly, but OECD figures indicate that as a proportion of turnover it is of under half of that in other advanced European countries.

Q: The recession of recent years has been a worldwide phenomenon. Yet some European governments—in Italy and Finland, for example—are now making vigorous efforts to boost their research spending in real terms, while Britain has at best level funding. How can we work out what is the "right" level of investment?
PORTER: There are several answers to that question. First, if in doubt we should always spend more on basic research. If you make a mistake in building or operating something like Concorde, as a result of poor basic science, it can be extremely expensive. Second, because some countries started from such a low level, they have had to raise their spending, while we have been compelled to accept that the halcyon days of the 1960s will never return. I recall Shirley Williams, who had served as a Minister of State for Education and Science in the previous Labour government, announcing in an article in The Times in 1971 that "For the scientist the party is over." She was warning us that science's share of national resources was falling and would continue to fall. Few people in the scientific community took that message sufficiently seriously.

On Britain and CERN

Q: What, then, of priorities among different disciplines when the size of the cake is smaller than before? In particular, what do you feel about recent suggestions that Britain may have to withdraw from CERN, the high energy physics facility at Geneva? What are the implications of a country abandoning one entire scientific specialty, particularly for talented young research workers in that field?
PORTER: The CERN difficulty was, of course, precipitated largely by adverse changes in the exchange rate between sterling and the Swiss franc, creating a 20 million pound shortfall in 1986 for the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). Such fluctuations pose increasing problems for the scientific community, and the British government is going to have to protect us against them in future. Whatever the level of finance, we must know at any one time what is our assured funding over, say, the next five years. Otherwise, planning becomes impossible, with repeated uncertainties for the research councils, and institutes being unsure of being able to employ people from one year to the next.

On the question of high energy physics as a discipline, it would be bad for us Britons in international and indeed European political terms to have to pull out of CERN. But I must admit that some years ago, when I was a member of the then Science Research Council, I shared the view among many chemists and members of other disciplines that high energy physics and astronomy were running away with an unreasonable proportion of our funds. Relatively few people were benefiting from research into particle physics, which was increasingly dealing with artificially created matter rather than the natural world.

Q: But can countries like Britain—the country of Lord Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory—really contemplate withdrawing from this entire sector of science?
PORTER: Well, theoretical physics is certainly safe, because it is so inexpensive. And we have been able to terminate our domestic experimental program in high energy physics without serious consequences. Remember, too, that in the past we bred far too many particle physicists—a result of the historical origins you mention, and of the subject's link with nuclear energy. I hope that we shall stay in CERN. At the same time, the future surely rests with even wider international cooperation between Europe and the United States and possibly the Soviet Union too.

Q: What are your feelings about the case for a Minister of Cabinet rank responsible solely for science—a proposal now favored by, among others, Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour opposition?
PORTER: As you know, because the poor health of British science at the moment is sometimes blamed on the way it is organized, we established an ad hoc committee last year to examine the machinery. Although the idea of a Minister for Science is backed by some distinguished Fellows such as Sir John Kingman, a former Chairman of the SERC, the committee came out against that view. Sir John believes we could achieve greater coherence in science policy by unifying two current roles—those of the parliamentary undersecretary at the Department of Education and Science (DES) responsible for, inter alia, the research councils, and the Minister of State within the Department of Trade and Industry who sponsors research in industry and, through the SERC, in universities. This might work very well, but the upheaval involved in such restructuring can hardly be contemplated when we are seeking more stability of funding. It's simply unrealistic—there's little chance of such a ministry being created.

The Royal Society does feel, however, that far more attention should be paid to overall science policy at the highest level of government. In particular, we need closer consultation between industry, university research and government. A National Advisory Council for Science is what we propose as a means of attaining that objective.

Q: What are the chances of such a Council's being established?
PORTER: I understand that the Prime Minister is not keen on the proposal, although she has said that she is keeping an open mind on the idea for the moment. And don't forget that Mrs. Thatcher sees herself as Science Minister.

Science Illiteracy in Britain

Q: What is your feeling about the general level of scientific literacy today?
PORTER: I am tempted to say that in terms of science, Britain is the worst-educated nation in the world. Our early specialization— which means that most Britons leave science forever at the age of around 15, and have learned precious little before that—is indefensible. In this day and age, people should be continuing with science and mathematics until they leave school. Also, the whole process of education in scientific ideas should begin at age four or five, when children's curiosity about the world around them isso strong. And we should start with the big question—such as how life began—and use them as introduction to physics, chemistry and biology, so that children understand what science is all about.

The frustrating thing is that virtually everyone agrees about the folly of early specialization. Countless reports and enquires have reached the same conclusion. The Secretary of State for Education and Science agrees. Yet very little has changed.

Q: What is your response to those who argue that science is for scientists, and who see little to bewail in public ignorance of science? Why does it really matter?
PORTER: It matters because among those who are scientifically illiterate are some of those who are in power, people who lead us in politics, in civil service, in the media, in the church, often in industry and sometimes even in education. Think, for example, about the enormous influence of scientific knowledge on one's whole philosophy of life, even one's religion. It is no more permissible for the archbishops of today, who advise their flocks on how to interpret the Scriptures, to ignore the findings of Watson and Crick, than it was right for clerics of the last century to ignore the work of Darwin.

Science today is all-pervasive. Without some scientific and technical education, it is becoming impossible even to vote responsibly on matters of health, energy, defense or education. So unless things change, we shall soon live in a country that is backward not only in its technology and standard of living but in its cultural vitality too. It is wrong to suppose that by foregoing technological and scientific education we shall somehow become a nation of artists, writers or philosophers instead. These two aspects of culture have never been divorced from each other throughout our history. Every renaissance, every period that showed a flowering of civilization, advanced simultaneously in the arts and sciences, and in technology too.

Q: You are also troubled, are you not, by the prevalence of irrationality, as manifested by people's interest in horoscopes and the paranormal?
PORTER: Yes. This sort of thing disgusts me intellectually. I don't mind harmless fun over ghost stories or Father Christmas, but I do tend to write off people who are so silly as to imagine that horoscopes could be meaningful or who develop a deep interest in allegedly paranormal metal bending. At worst, this type of ignorance and irrationality is what brings people like Hitler to the fore.

Q: Don't you feel that some of the blame for public ignorance of science attaches to scientists themselves, who are not always as willing as they might be to try to put across their ideas in popular form?
PORTER: The report of our ad hoc group on the public understanding of science, chaired by Sir Walter Bodmer, made this point. One of the tangible outcomes of that report is the new Michael Faraday Award, presented for the first time recently as means of encouraging better communication by scientists.

Britain's New Brain Drain

Q: What, finally, is your assessment of the brain drain that is once again channeling scientists out of Britain? How serious is it?
PORTER: A SEPSU study will be providing data on this problem shortly, but the signs are not good. As many as a quarter of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society this year live overseas, more than half of these in the United States. We can judge their quality pretty well from their addresses. They include six in Princeton, six in Chicago, five at Cornell, five at MIT, five in La Jolla, California, four at CalTech and three at Harvard. The brain drain is less apparent in industry, but no one who lives in Silicon Valley is short of British neighbors.

Q: But science is international. Continual two-way traffic is intrinsic to the whole enterprise. Is Britain really suffering a net outflow, a serious hemorrhage of talent?
PORTER: I fear so. We could indeed rejoice in Britain if our transatlantic losses of Fellows of the Royal Society were matched by an equivalent intake of members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The latest Academy list reveals just two members who have come over to work here permanently. It cannot all be due to the weather.