Britain - which made radar practical, built the world's first jet engine, invented the computer, and has per capita the highest number of Nobel prize winners of any country in the world - is falling badly behind in scientific research. The result: a severe brain drain down which Britain loses a thousand scholars every year.
Higher education - and the scientific research and development it includes - was not the kind of major issue that secondary school education was in Britain's election this past week.
[Election results were not available at press time. The Monitor will have a full report on the voting next week.]
But the brain drain is the subject that most alarms many politicians and academics. The trend has so dismayed British scientists that they have formed the Save British Science campaign.
Among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Ireland and Portugal now allocate less money as a percentage of public spending to education than Britain. Education as a percentage of gross domestic product is now 5.1 percent, down from the 1979-80 figure of 5.3 percent. Spending plans project that it will fall to 4.7 percent in 1989-90.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Party's education spokesman, says that West German engineering firm Siemens ``turns out more tech graduates than the entire British education system.''
Cost vs. value
Ashdown says that the Tory government is not allocating enough resources for long-term training and scientific research because it is so preoccupied with short-term free-market policies. The result? ``It knows the cost of everything,'' he says, ``but the value of absolutely nothing.''
Neglect of the scientific community has been documented in numerous reports recently, including a special House of Lords report earlier this year.
Cutbacks in government grants and the exodus of scientists is causing dismay in donnish, microchip Cambridge. The surrounding ``Silicon Fen'' is one of Europe's leading computer centers. Microchips have propelled the area into the fastest-growing region in Britain.
At a recent meeting of academics in the Cambridge Society Union, Michael Block, warden of Nuffield College, Cambridge, said government-sponsored research councils had funded only a third of all alpha-rated projects, while tax cuts have been given high priotity.
``Freedom is a great word with Conservatives. But its applied rather selectively. It doesn't apply to higher education.'' The Conservative government, he says, ``prefers universities to be tied down a bit.''
Sir Hans Kornberg, professor of microbiology at Christ's College, Cambridge, said ``No young people with any initiative are content to stay in a department if there's no hope of research.''
According to the professor, who belongs to the Save British Science campaign, ``morale in the scientific community has now sunk to an all-time low, and we're seeing the revival of the brain drain that characterized the 1960's.'' He said that post-doctoral fellows, who had worked with him for the past five years, had all left.
Similar disillusionment had apparently set in at the Plant Breeding Institute Cambridge, which the Conservative government had earmarked for privatization. ``This institute is now being dismembered and local staff members are losing both heart as well as their positions,'' says Prof. Kornberg.
Much of the criticism at the meeting was directed at the Tory government's ``deliberate effort'' to concentrate on short-term gains by making science more and more applied. This, it was argued, was making it harder to carry out basic research - the kind of research which has no foreseeable end but which has produced Nobel Prize winners in the past.
Research like pregnancy
Kornberg said this approach would ``sterilize British science.'' He compared basic research to pregnancy: It ``takes nine months to have a baby. You can't have nine women trying to have a baby in one month.''
The future of science was a local electoral issue in Cambridge. This was not surprising, considering that Social Democratic Party president and candidate Shirley Williams was once a Labour education minister and that the sitting Conservative Member of Parliament Robert Rhodes James is his party's higher education spokesman.
Mrs. Williams said the Cambridge community was making a ``great mistake if [it didn't] realize [that] what we are seeing is a kind of slow vandalism.''
Yet Williams, who decried government cutbacks and described the Tory government as ``fundamentally Philistine'' in its approach to higher education and basic science, was criticized by Mr. James.
He noted that some of the biggest cutbacks in British education, including a drop in university funding of 17.6 percent and in research funding of over 4 percent, occurred when Williams was Labour's education minister.
He disputed Williams's assertion that the buildup in recent years at Trinity Science Park in Cambridge would not be feasible today because of the government's unwillingness to provide public-sector funding. The park is a collection of high technology industrial companies and research institutes.
``When I came here ten years ago, Trinity Science Park consisted of one building employing less than 40 people. There are now 42 companies employing 1,600 employees.''
James asserts that he has been able to increase the national scientific budget ``quite considerably'' (about 3 percent in real terms). He claims to have raised 10 million from Cambridge industry for fundamental research. He also says that many of the criticisms of the government's emphasis are unfair. Research development
``Where we fall down from the jet engine onward,'' he says ``is on developing [research].''
But even here, James thinks, British science is changing. He instances a piece of equipment that was going to be dismantled. It was saved by a man called John Bradfield at Trinity College, who he thought it had commercial possibilities. The result? The birth of the laser scan.