UK: WHAT'S WRONG WITH SCIENCE. - To Be a Scientist: The Spirit of Adventure in Science and Technology

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To Be a Scientist: The Spirit of Adventure in Science and Technology

By Donald Braben

Oxford; 159pp; £9.99

Review by Bernard Dixon

Some months ago, I found myself in Aberdeen, lunching with semi-retired bacteriologist Alan Paton. He was talking about some fascinating research in which he and his colleagues have shown that certain plant cells can live in very close association with L forms of bacteria which lack the normal cell wall. Partnerships of this sort, which achieve more than the sum of the parts, could prove of major industrial importance in future. I asked Alan how he first discovered the phenomenon. 'By looking down a microscope,' he said. But why had no one else reported the same thing? 'Probably because bacteriologists don't spend much time at the microscope any more.'

There is an allegory of our times here - an allegory superbly reflected in Donald Braben's felicitously written account of science, its funding and its application. Alan Paton was one of the beneficiaries of British Petroleum's 'venture research unit', directed by Braben from its foundation in 1980 until the brave experiment became a casualty of the economic downturn of the early l990s. Probably only such a body, consciously established to support long-shots, would have funded Paton's research. For peering down a microscope not only seems awfully passe - compared with what modern bacteriologists do, cloning genes, for example, and searching databases for clues about the functions of their proteins. Such leisurely work also has little obvious connection with the more urgent task of making money.

It now seems ironic that it was a commercial company, BP, that recognised and met the need to finance 'blue skies' science - alongside a solid core of applied R and D - and to support heterodox ideas that just might pay off in future. After more than a decade, during which time even those traditional custodians of unfettered scholarship, the universities, have been forced to chase industrial funds and pursue only science offering foreseeable practical rewards, the case for fundamental (and curiosity-oriented) work is more compelling than ever.

No company or country can live for ever off the fruits of targeted research projects, based on the conventional wisdom of committees. Even the Japanese, for all their skill in applying, developing, copying and marketing that which originated elsewhere, now recognise the force of this argument.

To Be a Scientist is in part an account of BP's venture research unit, and contains vignettes of many of the projects financed through this programme. But it is much more than that. First, Braben writes engagingly about the researchers who sought his help, and about his interactions with them. Dudley Herschbach, for example, posed serious difficulties because he was not only a new Nobel laureate, but he also radiated brilliance and good humour. Braben's problem, given that the unit's philosophy was not to be influenced by such things, was how to respond to Herschbach 'in the same way I would to a post-doc'.

Second, the book carries a delightful and instructive thread of autobiography. We follow Braben's odyssey from research in high-energy physics, through a spell as assistant to the UK Government's chief scientific adviser and two years each at the then Science Research Council and the Bank of England, to his call from BP in 1979. Everywhere, there are telling lessons. As a PhD student, the experience of being handed a paper which he found incomprehensible, only to learn later that this was a ploy to combat his cockiness, led him to conclude that 'knowledge should never be used as a weapon'.

Later, when working at the Daresbury Laboratory, Braben was astounded when his director rejected a research proposal solely because another laboratory, in Germany, was better equipped for the task. 'He might as well have tried to convince Robert Falcon Scott to abandon his bid for the South Pole in favour of Roald Amundsen because the Norwegian's equipment was better suited to the conditions.'

Thirdly, here is as fine and sensitive an account of the wider issues of science policy and research funding as I have encountered for many years. Braben is fair in his handling of the diversity of approaches to these matters. Indeed, diversity is itself a quality which he warmly approves.

There is, however, no doubt about his opposition to the way in which the scientific enterprise is now rigidly controlled, not by individual scientists but by committees - 'cul-de-sacs', as House of Commons Clerk Sir Barnett Cocks once observed, 'down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled'. The repercussions of such short-sighted policies are essentially what this charming, timely and occasionally quirky book is all about.

Dr Bernard Dixon is a science writer and consultant.

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