David Willetts on the layman and the eight great technologies

david_willetts17:38 Thursday 12th March 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS BERROW: Today is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s first ever Science Day. It coincides with the 21st Cambridge Science Festival. Well later our very own Naked Scientists will be broadcasting live from the Pitt Building in Cambridge as part of the Festival, and they’ll be live on the Mark Forrest Show from seven o’clock. David Willetts is a British Conservative Party politician, and was the Minister of State for Universities and Science until July last year. Well I spoke to him earlier today and asked him why funding for science is such an important thing.
DAVID WILLETTS: There’s a great story of Margaret Thatcher being presented with advice on whether or not she should invest in British participation in the Large Hadron Collider. And all the cautious official advice was it’s expensive and couldn’t be afforded. But she wrote on the submission, ‘But it’s very interesting, isn’t it?’ So that’s the first reason. And then the second reason is that as a nation that’s strong in science, it helps to drive R&D, it helps us be strong in the high tech industries of the future, it attracts overseas investment. So it’s worthwhile, and it also has an economic benefit.
CHRIS BERROW: There are big problems that the UK is facing at the moment, climate change, energy storage, things like that. And presumably science is one of those things that can help with a huge range of issues.
DAVID WILLETTS: Absolutely, and it can help tackle all the big global challenges, and you’ve given some very good examples, climate change, where you’ve both got to understand it, and also then of course develop technologies to help to deal with it. I think also science has got enormous potential to help us in the life sciences, you know. This amazing discovery from Cambridge of the structure of DNA has over the decades since proved to be one of the great research programmes of all time. And we’re still discovering all these connections between different aspects of our genetic code and our propensity to disease. So that’s an incredibly powerful application of science as well.
CHRIS BERROW: You’ve mentioned technology. Tell me about the concept of the eight great technologies. It’s something that I know you championed during your time as Science Minister.
DAVID WILLETTS: Yes well I was getting lots of expert advice and horizon scanning, where the experts were trying to identify areas where Britain both had a special area of scientific and technological expertise, and where also to be frank there was a global market, there was a business opportunity as well. And I took all that advice and tried to distill it down to something that made sense to me as a layman, and could be communicated to other lay people. And that was the eight great technologies, which are .. and I can give you a very quick account of them if you like ..
DAVID WILLETTS: It begins with big data and the computing power to analyse big data, which I think is of profound significance. Then you have a couple of examples of how this becomes relevant, and one is robotics and autonomous systems, which are only possible really because of very smart software. And the software that you need to program a robot to deliver a cup of tea to a bed-ridden little old lady is actually far more sophisticated that the software you need to get to play chess with a grandmaster. So it’s taking longer but we’re getting there. Then thirdly I had satellites, because those are very important sources of data and transmitters of data. And then I move on to the life sciences, and of course this extraordinary co-incidence in a way that just as we’re making all these advances in IT, we discover that the genetic code comes in a digital form. So I then had the life sciences technologies including synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and applications, not just to humans but to agri-science. Those are the next three. And then I ended up with something you’ve already referred to, energy storage, very important challenges there, and advanced materials. Now we’re not saying that we know the future, we know that in a decade’s time these are going to be the eight great technologies. But I think they have got great potential. I think some of them will deliver. And when I took this list to the Chancellor and explained to him this was what we thought was significant, the Chancellor invested £600 million in extra spend on R&D in those technologies. So we’ve really been able to give them a boost.
CHRIS BERROW: Was the Chancellor a layman in terms of his understanding of science? Is that how you had to break it down to that anyone can understand this sort of thing?
DAVID WILLETTS: Well he’s a layman. I’m a layman. We don’t claim to be a proper scientist. And the science community during my four plus years as Science Minister were incredibly tolerant and open, and willing to explain what they were doing in a way that I could understand. In fact I thought in some ways it was a good test for a scientist, that he or she should be able to explain what they were doing to me. And then I tried to absorb that and communicate it to my colleagues, discuss it with the Chancellor, who has become more and more committed on this, and contribute to Cabinet discussions, reminding people that when we’re talking about heavy flooding, climate change is putting the weather on steroids. And there’s a link between climate change and these more intense weather events. So trying to offer the scientific perspective in Cabinet discussions well.
CHRIS BERROW: And today is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire’s first ever Science Day. We’re doing something across all of our output today. Do you think it’s really important to just keep the layman interested in this field, because otherwise it could just go over everybody’s heads?
DAVID WILLETTS: Yes and I think science and trying to understand science has got several different purposes. One is of course that we have proper scientists, real technical experts, who understand their areas of science and they’re researching them. That’s great. But there’s something else we need as well. We need some broad understanding of science across the national culture, for those of us who are lay people to feel comfortable with science. In the same way I hope we have some rough idea of the shape of our country’s history for example. And it’s that type of science which the Festival is about, and which is really important. People shouldn ‘t think that climate change or genetic medicine are esoteric mysteries, reserved for a small select few.But they shape and influence all of our lives, and all of us should have some kind of basic understanding of what’s going on and what the issues are.
CHRIS BERROW: Well that’s David Willetts, who was the Minister of State for Universities and Science until July last year.