Brilliant news in today’s new year’s honours list, of a knighthood for David Payne, Professor of Photonics at the University of Southampton. He deserves to be far better known than he is — I explain why in The Geek Manifesto, and to celebrate the honour, I’ve reproduced the passage in question below.
I’m also delighted by another knighthood, for Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London. Simon is a compassionate and open-minded scientist who has had to put up with some remarkable poison and smears because of his work on ME/CFS and Gulf War syndrome. He’s also done some remarkable research on military psychiatric medicine. The reasons he deserves his honour are well summed up in the citation for the inaugural John Maddox Prize, which he won earlier this year. In short, he stands up for his science — in just the way I advocate in the book.
Oh, and the paperback of The Geek Manifesto is out on January 3. Amazon seems to be selling it already. So if you didn’t get it for Christmas, now’s the time to order!
Anyway, here’s the Payne extract — it’s from the Geekonomics chapter, in a section headed “The serendipity of science”. Together with other examples of how science has driven innovation, but not necessarily in a predictable way, Payne’s story is worth remembering as George Osborne sets out priorities for UK science spending.
When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN computer scientist, developed the hypertext transfer protocol – the ‘http’ of web addresses – he wasn’t trying to invent a revolutionary form of mass communication that would transform countless businesses and enable the creation of entirely new ones. He was seeking a better way for particle physicists to share data, and his elegant solution happened to give birth to the World Wide Web.
David Payne is not as well known as Berners-Lee, yet the Professor of Photonics at the University of Southampton can be just as fairly called a father of the modern internet. Every time you download a track to your iPod or watch a video on YouTube you are probably making use of his research, which laid the foundations of the fibre-optic cable technology that made broadband possible and brought significant economic benefits in its wake.
In the mid-1980s, Payne’s team designed an amplifier to send signals over long distances down fibre-optic cables. It was to have an unexpected extra benefit. ‘It turned out you could put multiple “colours” through the fibres, perhaps 1,000 different wavelengths,’ he says. ‘The upshot was, you could have fibres not only 1,000 times longer, but carrying 1,000 times more information. It’s where broadband comes from.’
A critical foundation for a new industry worth many billions had been laid: there are now enough fibre-optic cables to circle the globe 30,000 times. It did not come about because Payne was trying to invent it, nor because he was backed by a big corporation that saw his potential. It happened because the British taxpayer gave his team the time and space it needed by funding excellent scientists to follow their curiosity over many years.
When Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) made its critical breakthrough in 1987, it had a ten-year grant worth £16 million from the government funding body now known as theEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It gave Payne and his colleagues latitude to take on long-term projects and to explore exciting new directions as they became clear. Some lines of inquiry went nowhere. Others opened serendipitous techno- logical possibilities and business opportunities that could never have been predicted in advance. Broadband was far from the only economic spin-off: ten companies in the Southampton area, employ- ing a total of 600 people, owe their origins to the ORC. ‘We’ve established their collective turnover at around £200 million a year,’ Payne says. ‘Our research has more than paid for itself.’
Shankar Balasubramanian has a similar story to tell. When the Cambridge University chemical biologist was growing up as a Merseyside teenager, his ambition was to become a professional footballer and play for Liverpool. While his ultimate career path lacked glamour by comparison, it had far more striking economic consequences. As he played around with nucleic acids in the late 1990s, following his curiosity, Balasubramanian and his colleague David Klenerman hit upon a new method of reading DNA that dramatically speeded up the process. The pair hadn’t set out to make a fortune, or even to develop a useful new technology, yet their find- ings were to prove both important and lucrative.
Solexa, the company they founded to take forward their research, rapidly became one of the success stories of British biotechnology. Solexa sequencing machines are used today by most of the world’s leading genetics labs, contributing to a gathering revolution in per- sonalized medicine. In November 2006, Solexa was acquired by Illumina, the world’s leading DNA-sequencing company, for $600 million – all money the British economy would never have seen had research councils lacked the resources to support fundamental chemistry research.
More recently, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of graphene, a new form of carbon that is promising to transform electronics and many other industries. Like most great ideas that emerge from science to generate growth, it was rooted in serendipity, an unforeseen spin-off that emerged when important scientific questions are answered.
Carl Sagan, the master of communicating by thought experiment, encapsulated the theme with his tale of the ‘Westminster Project’:
‘Suppose: You are, by the Grace of God, Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the Faith in the most prosperous and triumphant age of the British Empire,’ he wrote in The Demon-Haunted World. ‘Suppose, in the year 1860, you have a visionary idea, so daring it would have been rejected by Jules Verne’s publisher. You want a machine that will carry your voice, as well as moving pictures of the glory of the Empire, into every home in the kingdom. What’s more, the sounds and pictures must come not through conduits or wires, but somehow out of the air.’
To address this challenge, the Queen engages the Empire’s top scientists in the Westminster Project – a grand initiative to develop just such a revolution in communications. It would, of course, have failed. Yet at exactly the time Sagan asks us to consider, a Scottish geek, following his own curiosity, was drawing up a series of mathematical equations that described electromagnetism. His name was James Clerk Maxwell – and his work was ultimately to deliver television, radio and other aspects of modern telecommunications. It is just that nobody, not even Maxwell, could possibly have predicted this in advance.
With so few politicians having worked in research, few of them instinctively grasp the intricacies of the system’s reliance on this sort of serendipity. They are keen to praise Nobel prize-winners and extol the value of scientific solutions to climate change or serious disease. They are less comfortable with the need to support uncertain basic research – essential to the chance of Nobels and breakthroughs, but much of which will fail.
As Simon Frantz, of the Nobel Foundation, puts it: ‘When ministers talk about science funding, they almost always announce with pride that the UK has overachieved in the number of Nobel Laureates as a prelude to discussing measures that will ensure that we will never come close to this figure again.’
A common temptation is to insist that funding should be directed so that it supports work that will generate the returns that everyonewould like science to have. In 2009, Lord Drayson, then the UK Science Minister, called for funding to be focused on areas of science in which Britain has a ‘strategic advantage’. His government also introduced a new funding system for university research, which marks researchers according to the economic or social benefits of their work. Such ideas are well intentioned: it is important that scientists have every incentive to exploit results that have commercial or social potential. But it is simply impossible to predict the impact of scientific research before it is done: if it were known, there would be no need to do the experiments.
It is simply impossible to predict the impact of scientific research before it is done: if it were known, there would be no need to do the experiments.
More state support for translating good ideas into business oppor- tunities would certainly be welcome. But this cannot be done at the expense of basic research, and the constraints politicians place on science funding makes it something of a zero-sum game. Throw out too much curiosity-led science in favour of applied work and you risk being left with nothing to apply.
Britain had no strategic advantage in opto-electronics when David Payne began his career: the field had yet to be developed. Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman had no track record of impact when they started the research that founded a multi-million pound company. Berners-Lee would have struggled to show his work had social significance, let alone economic importance. All would have struggled to attract funding in the modern era.
Few researchers are better qualified to boast about impact than Robert Langer, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: he holds more than 600 patents and has founded a clutch of successful companies. Yet he is wary of efforts to guide research this way. ‘You don’t know when you’re starting wherethings are going to lead,’ he says. ‘I think making things too directed would be concerning. In fact, I would say that generally you get more bang for your buck by funding basic research.’