Professor Brian Cox: Politicians funding science need to think of the future

Noted physicist Professor Brian Cox has warned that future science funding needs to be focused around what we want to achieve in 10 or 20 years time.

The English scientist, author and TV personality told a group of UK government officials reviewing the country’s science spending that there has to be consideration of what outputs there will be as well as the monetary input that’s made.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee, Cox said that current “excellent” scientific results have all come from a previous commitment to science funding.

“We’re reaping the rewards of decisions that were made decades ago,” he told the committee.

“If you’re focusing on outputs, the correct question has to be: ‘What do we invest in now in order to make sure those outputs at least stay constant and world-leading, but also, which become more valuable as time goes on?’. We’re looking at 10 or 20 year timescales.”

Cox backed this up by saying the success of the large Hadron Collider and “big space missions” are because of the decisions that were made during the 1980s.

Since 2010 the UK’s science budget has been ring-fenced as a separate budget within the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) department.

But the government’s current spending review is due to set new budgets, including the one for science, for the next two years.

As such, the committee is looking at where and how science should be funded and to what extent changes will impact upon the work undertaken by the county’s universities and researchers.

In the last spending review in 2013, government officials announced that the science community in the UK would continue to receive a ‘flat-cash’ spending until the current spending review.

Cox said that a similar fixed funding approach would be detrimental to the UK’s scientific research and could result in the country becoming a “second-class scientific nation”.

“If there’s a flat-cash settlement then realistically it’s dire, I think. That’s not my opinion, it seems to be the opinion, unanimously, of the research councils. So I would be extremely pessimistic if that is what happened,” he said.

“I spend a lot of time going to schools and talking to students and telling them that STEM, putting their energies into STEM, is the way that they can secure a better future and have a very enjoyable time at the moment.

“That’s true at the moment but it won’t be true if we become a second-class scientific nation. Where will those jobs be?”

The Science and Technology Committee is continuing to take evidence on the future of science funding and will report later this year. 

We need China’s help to get to Mars: Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin, noted astronaut and the second person to walk on the Moon, has said that the US needs the cooperation of other countries, including China, if it is to achieve its goal of reaching Mars.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Aldrin said that considerable work needed to be done to lay the foundations for a trip to the Red Planet.

“The sequence of build-up – that does include cooperation with other nations,” he said.

“Now the most difficult one to work that out with is China, but it is really essential that we have a working relationship.”

Aldrin suggested that this relationship could be modelled on the one developed between the US and the Soviet Union in the 70s for space exploration, which paved the way for the development of the International Space Station.

“Somehow it could be patterned against the one that was built up with the Soviet Union during the Cold War in 1975 when we suggested, sort of as a reward for other things, that we do a join-up in space – and the legacy of that remains today,” he explained.

Image courtesy of Buzz Aldrin Enterprises

Image courtesy of Buzz Aldrin Enterprises

Aldrin argued that this co-operation was required now, as work needed to begin to establish a base on the Moon as a step on the road to a base on Mars itself.

This would require sending considerable infrastructure into space, and Aldrin suggested this would require the co-operation of numerous space-faring nations to achieve.

“We’d like to, in my mind, figure out who may be doing that: what would the US do, and what might other countries do to set up a permanent [base] on the Moon to build towards Mars?” he asked.

Image and featured image courtesy of NASA

Image and featured image courtesy of NASA

When asked by interviewer John Humphries if we could ever make a home on Mars, Aldrin replied “Yes and we better start thinking about it now.” However, he rejected the suggestion that you can’t bring people back from the planet.

“Well you can – that’s the way conventionally everybody is planning it, and eventually they say we’ll settle,” he said.

“You can get to Mars and be in orbit. That is the big step: to make the landing. It is not like the Earth really, it’s a little more like the Moon, but that gets into the details of the energy in the orbit.

“When I started thinking about Mars instead of the Moon in 1985, I came up with this continuous cycling orbit that will swing by the Earth, swing by Mars about five months later, come back  in 21 months. The magic number is 26 months because that is when the Earth catches up with Mars and you can transfer between one and the other.

“Now, once you’ve transferred, the next favourable time comes 26 months later and you need to wait for that.”