Why it all matters

Science really matters. It’s taken humanity on its most enlightening, its most exciting, its most productive — and potentially the most catastrophic journey of any specie on the planet ever.

The best, perhaps our only option to avert the potential catastrophes facing us is to take heed of the iconoclastic knowledge and sometimes conflicting perspectives of scientists.

What we’re doing here is to create different platforms for individual scientists to tell us what they do and why it matters, and for their collective scientific endeavour to enable better informed decision-making.

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That’s the short version. Below is another (longer!) written version of things, including why Birmingham, and why optimism.

Why science matters
Our youngsters are given many reasons to study science subjects. In the UK, most doled out are economic, bruited under whatever is meant by that odd phrase “the knowledge economy”.

But it’s a minority who study science subjects at A-level or beyond. Most of us aren’t and never will be professional scientists or engineers. Nor does our sense of self, well-being or livelihood depend on our personally knowing the finer points of, say, the genome or Bernoulli’s Principle or fullerene or the life cycle of the varoa mite or the structures and physiological processes that are, in this moment, generating my screwed-up thoughts, rickety consciousness, these words.

Yet the stuff, if not the detail, intrigues us all.

And, too, our existence and very survival depend on the exacting, meticulous work of scientists observing How The World Really Works rather than how they or anyone else believes it works — and sending the evidence they’ve uncovered across geography and time.

Given its power as well as its fascination, all of us need to understand why science matters and, crucially, why the doing of science has taken humanity on its most enlightening, its most exciting, its most productive — and potentially the most catastrophic journey of any specie on the planet ever.

Given its power, it’s no surprise then, as John Brockman argues, science is “becoming the predominant culture and scientists are taking the place of traditional intellectuals in answering the important questions facing humankind”.

So part and parcel of the vitality of societies is how we can all participate in this “dominant culture”.

Why West Midlands scientists
Jenny Uglow, author of The Lunar Men, wrote the Foreword to The New Optimists. In it, she describes my adopted city of Birmingham as “a place that has always been a town of forges and anvils, of making and invention, a crucible of ideas”.

In truth, it’s been far less so since the automotive industry played its enormous part in the city’s economy for a brief few decades in the middle of the last century. Sweeping the ‘workshops of the world’ into submission in its supply chain or threatening demise outside it, the powerful auto-industry monoculture seeped into the psyche of the city.

Hubris inevitably flourished.

The talk of our fine automotive manuafacturing skills even held steady while the reality of the Allegro, created at the same time as BMW was designing the Series 3, literally fell apart. It took four decades more for Longbridge finally to collapse amid stories of theft and corruption.

And still the talk holds sway in many influential quarters, understandably fearful the new might of Tata will withdraw its support to a reinvigorated Jaguar Land Rover. (s.a. the ONS Portrait of the West Midlands, July 2011.)

Folk history here lauds Matthew Boulton and manufacturing, but the West Midlands less noisily and dramatically became home to many scientists from Boulton’s lifetime onwards; Lunar Man Erasmus Darwin was one such.

Birmingham Medical School, founded in 1825, could build on 50 years’ teaching in the city’s hospitals; it is now one of the biggest Schools in the world and still attracts fine medics, researchers and life scientists. Add too, other work being carried out within UoB, the lively specialist research going on at Aston, the surprisingly rapid intellectual force of Warwick, the focussed reputation of Harper Adams and the scattered science excellence within our local institutions, BCU, Coventry, UCB, Worcester and Wolverhampton.

Compared to the likes of Cambridge, Mass or UK, this region, however, isn’t in the same intellectual or social league.

Yet the nature of the doing of science is such that even the most “ordinary” of PhD science students or postdocs is engaged in the most extraordinary activity, their day-to-day intellectual effort right at the forefront of discovery.

Denied easy answers, shackled with unbending rules of procedure, spending long hours at the lab bench or the library, usually badly-paid and without a secure job, they have an insatiable desire to understand.

And the fruits of their labour open up better prospects for us all.

Why optimism
Science is inherently optimistic. Each new piece of evidence uncovers new avenues to explore, raises ever better questions to ask.

This is our niche, a cognitive one, unfettered by predators other than ourselves. Held at a global price, though; the atmospheric chemist, Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen proposed the term Anthropocene for the current geological epoch.

Will we survive in this Anthropocene? I’m pessimistic given the huge challenges facing humanity, our massive population, rapid resource depletion, climate change.

I have no wish to live in the mad, bad, dangerous world whose population believes itself doomed.

Despite my pessimism, I am by nature an optimist, willing to stake my effort on the slim chance that we can meet these huge challenges by taking heed of the iconoclastic knowledge and sometimes conflicting perspectives of scientists.

I live here in Birmingham, not Cambridge. Hence Science Forward is in this city, a dollop of optimism, a means for scientists working here as well as elsewhere to contribute to the “crucible of ideas” we and future generations need in order to have and lead our lives well.

My third grandchild will be born here in this city in a few days’ time. My skin, my DNA, is in this game.

As is yours.

Kate Cooper
28th August 2011  

And finally, here is a podcast of Patrick Redmond’s interview with me which says a lot about the what and why of it all too.

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