"The Cuts Risk Destroying Things That Can't Be Brought Back"

By Elmhirst, Sophie | New Statesman (1996), October 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

"The Cuts Risk Destroying Things That Can't Be Brought Back"


Elmhirst, Sophie, New Statesman (1996)


You must be delighted that two Manchester physicists have just won the Nobel Prize.

Everyone feels a great sense of pride. It means a huge amount that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov's work has been recognised--it's the highest accolade in the scientific world. It's also a wonderful example of how the university supports research with major benefits for society.

Are you worried about how the forthcoming cuts will affect scientific research?

We are told that unprotected government departments will have, on average, a 25 per cent cut. We don't know how serious the situation will be, but I think it's going to be somewhere between very and exceptionally difficult.

Will the cuts cause long-term damage?

There is a danger of destroying things that can never be brought back, particularly in science. It means you have no PhD students coming through--but you don't just lose four or five years, you probably lose ten years, because of the knock-on effect.

Is there a risk of Britain falling behind?

Absolutely--many of our competitors are investing more in science, not just the US and Canada, but China, Germany, France. They are increasing their budgets at a time when it looks as if the budget in the UK will be declining.

Are you anxious about the impact of Lord Browne's review of university funding?

There is a real concern that there will be significant groups of talented students who won't be able to afford to go to university, particularly students from backgrounds where it would not have been a tradition.

Was there a moment in childhood when you became fascinated by science?

My father was a biology lecturer--when I was five or six, I saw pictures in his books. Apparently I wrote an essay then saying I wanted to be a scientist. But I nearly chose to go into art.

Do you think the division between art and science in our education system is too strict?

I don't like the separation--it leads to the view that arts are creative and interesting and science is difficult and logical. The best scientists are extremely creative.

You specialised in neuroscience. To what extent do we understand the brain?

We know the basic wiring, but more difficult is understanding how we think and remember.

Will this understanding improve?

With modern imaging, we can look at functioning inside a living, thinking brain. So we are starting to unravel, for example, which bit of the brain tells us the way home.

Why did you decide to run a university?

My research is still running, I'm not giving it up. …

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