Britain's Business Secretary wants to turn the nation's back on basic science

Today in the Observer, business columnist John Naughton describes in exquisite detail the blinkered pig-ignorance of Business Secretary Peter Mandelson's plan to de-fund basic research in favor of "prioritising research that would contribute to Britain's future prosperity." That is, he's only going divert funding to those small, incremental technologies that have well-understood, overhyped revenue models, leaving out the visionary basic science that has historically accounted for the largest payouts for industry and government. If Mandelson's criteria had controlled spending 50 years ago, no one would have wasted money on go-nowhere egghead flights of fancy — like the laser.

Lasers are thus a critical part of our technological infrastructure, yet no one involved in the research that led to them had any inkling of what their investigations would produce. The original idea goes back to a paper Albert Einstein published in 1917 on "The Quantum Theory of Radiation" about the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. For 40 years, stimulated emission was of absorbing interest to quantum physicists, but of little interest to anyone else – certainly to nobody in government.

Which brings us to Lord Mandelson, now in charge of all government funding of universities and academic research. He has no personal experience of research in science or technology, but, like many people whose minds are unclouded by knowledge, has strong views on these matters.

In his first speech after taking control of Britain's research spending, for example, he "made no apology for prioritising research that would contribute to Britain's future prosperity". The occasion was the celebration of the centenary of the Science Museum, and Mandy left his listeners in no doubt that he will continue government policy of allocating more of the £6bn science budget to areas with commercial applications – in other words, areas that the government (and its industrial advisers) think will yield short-term benefits for Britain.

Lasers would never have shone if Mandelson had been in charge

(via Memex 1.1)

(Image: Lasers a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licensed photo from dmuth's photostream)