Last week, at the Jodrell Bank Observatory where I am based, we welcomed the UK Science Minister David Willetts.
We had learnt of his possible visit some weeks before but were only confirmed the subject of his visit some days before. The Minister came to announce some 300 million pounds worth of investment in research ( yes that’s 300 million, no typos).
There was an investment of 165 million pounds for the European Spalliation Source, a giant and ultra powerful neutron microscope to be built in Sweden. There was also 25 million pounds for the ESA mission PLATO, a space telescope made of an array of 34 satellites in orbit.
Finally, there was 100 million pounds (plus 19 million from STFC) for the project I work on, the Square Kilometre Array. For my project, this is a significant investment and the first firm commitment towards the construction of the telescope (whose first phase of construction has been cost-capped at 650 million euros), and it comes two years before we are due to secure funding for that phase. It shows we are on the right track and are doing things right to build this telescope, whose scale is like nothing that’s ever been done before (I’m still trying to grasp the size of it all).
With hopefully more governments set to join the 11-member organisation later this year, it shows governments trust us to deliver this incredible machine. Giant projects such as this are incredibly difficult to manage and see through, and can suffer from tremendous cost overruns, like we have seen for the James Webb Space Telescope. Strong leadership and sound management are necessary to turn these projects from concept to reality. But giant science projects are also necessary because they create job, knowledge, distribute wealth and drive innovation.
What I noticed about the Minister in his visit here, is that he is very much passionate about science and these projects (he should be you might say). But this investment shows the UK government believes in research, in its benefits, and all the things it can deliver for the economy. Science is good because it helps us understand the world we live in, it satisfies our curiosity, but big science is also good because it delivers jobs, and it creates and even drives innovation, because we need to invent the tools and instruments to do what the scientists want. And more often than not, it bring inventions than then find applications in other fields (like Wifi, like MRIs, like GPS, like insulation, etc. all by-products of scientific research and/or space exploration).
Because of all of this, it is often said that every tax dollar (or pound or euro) spent in research brings back many more pounds to the economy in different forms. It’s hard to quantify, but I think it’s not hard to understand.
It’s good to see some politicians understand this and especially after years of very tough crisis in Europe, and when some European countries are still struggling, and when there are so little money to be invested in anything. Having faith that investment in science can help us get out of this is great. That’s what the President of the European Commission Jose Manual Barroso said when he visited ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile earlier last year.
And hearing leaders saying this gives hope for the future and is exactly what we need to build stronger, richer, and smarter societies.