Science: a team sport, but not a national one

A sign outside the Natural History Museum. They’re right, we did totally invent dinosaurs.

One of the many interesting things about the badger cull is the way a sense of Britishness has been utilised so much in the campaign against it. When Brian May played the closing ceremony of Olympics with pictures of a fox and badger on the sleeves of his jacket, he arguably subverted a particular idea of Britishness (the hunting and fishing type), with another (one that is more likely to privilege animal rights over sport). More plainly, there was SchNEWS’ claim the badger was the British equivalent to the panda, or Brain May (again) Kitchener style posing: Badgers need you. Personally, I’m not sure Kitchener is a form of Britishness I personally have much affinity with. May also came dangerously close to comparing himself to Mandela which seems ill advised at the best of times, but perhaps especially for a musician famous for playing apartheid South Africa.

There’s been rather a lot of flagwaving around UK science this summer though, similarly ill advised in my view. First up, David Cameron’s celebration of the discovery of the Higgs boson was just plain crass. Yes, Peter Higgs is British, but the discovery was the result of many people working together, drawing on the resources and expertise of even more. That sort of visionary mass action of human is what we should be celebrating, not way hays for British bosons. Indeed, that’s kind of why CERN exists: to draw on and develop science’s large networks of international collaboration.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills use of the “Britain is GREAT” campaign has been bugging me for months (see pictures above and below, and more in this post, there was also an exhibition at the Science Museum). Considering the recent changes to higher education funding in the UK, I was especially taken by the “knowledge is GREAT” posters, complete with nod to the lofty spires of the UK’s famous universities, next to those proclaiming “shopping is GREAT”. As several people have pointed out – e.g. Mariana Mazzucato – for all the campaign’s rhetoric in British innovation, this wasn’t accompanied by as much visionary, bold public investment as there could be.

Knowledge is so GREAT, wish they’d invest in it. Outside BIS earlier this year.

In many ways, that Natural History Museum poster is right though, we did totally invent the dinosaur. Or at least the word dinosaur was coined by the Natural History Museum’s founder, Richard Owen. Britain has great scientific and technological heritage. It was lovely – refreshing even – to see it featured in the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies. I like that our money has Stephenson’s rocket and Watson and Crick’s helix on it. I don’t want to argue that science lacks any local identity or localities won’t be proud of their scientific and technological heritage. There are many types and stories of Britishness though. “We” didn’t invent dinosaurs, Richard Owen coined the term, and I don’t feel much affinity with him, even if we did work in the same bit of London. By most accounts, he wasn’t the nicest of people. He also died many decades before I was born. I also personally feel a bit alienated by the poshness of the Royal Society, Royal Institution et al. It’s not a culture I feel part of. There’s a colonial history surrounding science and technology which we should be aware and critical of too, and we should be careful of the negative impact a blinkered immigration policy can have on the complex multi-cultural networks of modern science.

I’m not a fan of nationalism at the best of times and I admit to suffering from a bout of bunting fatigue after our summer of Jubilee/Olympics, but I really wish everyone would put those bloody flags away. Or a least show some more awareness of the way a sense of Britishness may exclude and limit as well as include and celebrate.

EDIT: as Tori Herridge suggests, there are connections to this and some of the recent chatter about the appropriateness of celebrating heroes in science. See, for example, Athene Donald on the topic (and piece I wrote for the Guardian last weekend, which also referred to Cameron’s Higgs gaff).

Summer is over. Damp “time to shine” banner in Autumn rain outside Turnpike Lane tube.

Some of the above is based on something I wrote for the first edition of the new UK edition of Popular Science. The magazine’s been published in the US since 1872, so for a British version I thought I’d have a bit of a poke at the idea of celebrating Britishness in the popularisation of science. If you want to read the full piece, the bad news is the magazine is iPad only. If that hasn’t lost you, the good news is that the first edition is free. This link should take you to the right bit of iTunes.

13 thoughts on “Science: a team sport, but not a national one

  1. kevinkindsongs

    This is a good point and points to the, perhaps, abolition of national boundaries which is probably a good and inevitable thing. They are an archaic hold over from mainly warfare it seems.

  2. Jayesh Navin Shah (@jayeshnavin)

    Hi Alice,

    It’s not just flag waving for it’s own sake. People see our science heritage as part of what makes Britain great – in the BIS Public Attitudes to Science 2011 workshops, participants thought there was a Britishness to inventing things – so why not celebrate that and use it as an avenue to engage people? Showing them how science has shaped, and is an intrinsic part of, UK culture might be one way of getting rid of the “I don’t do science” or “science doesn’t affect me” attitude.

    1. alice Post author

      My point is different types of Britishness and being careful of this. If you read the post, you’ll see I say I like that we have sci and tech on our money. You can do this without flags, and with a decent immigration policy (and strong public investment).

  3. Robert Pujol Vives

    In a small town in an underdeveloped country (like mine), threre was a copper witch only has an anvil and hammer. One mornig who’s worked beside his son, a plane flew over them, then copper sayed to his son pointing the plane: look what we do the mechanical.
    What would I say? Well the copper only knows how to do pots with a hammer but he’s proud of what they are able to do peers (mechanical that he’s consider).
    Country people make the same. My country have more genius ergo my country is more smart than beside countries so I’m more smart than people out of my country.
    Nacionalism is basis in simple correlations, and it takes scientists, athletes, geographical wonders or historical events. Its strength is making people feel that is different, better than others.
    I think that’s inevitable that governments apropiated the scientific achievement, and this has nothing to do with the true merits. Behind every great nation often to be a great lie hiding

  4. Brian Schmidt

    Along similar lines, as an American I thought some of the NASA flag-waving during the Curiosity Mars rover landing was over the top, especially during an international broadcast.

    On the other hand, it was the American taxpayer that paid for that landing and apparently likes that sort of recognition. If flag-waving is what’s needed to cajole the taxpayers of our various nations to fund science, then I can live with it.

  5. Dr Geoff Batt

    I enjoyed your post, as ever Alice. As you illustrate, identifying heroes in science – and academia generally – is invariably a challenging issue. It’s hard to get a community based on individuality (and let’s be fair, the occasional bit of iconoclasm) to rally behind any universal theme, let alone anything as complex and potentially flawed as another human being. I can appreciate your fatigue over what must be the practically narcotic levels of nationalism in the UK after the past summer. People fundamentally want to belong to something larger than themselves though – what rallying point (or hero) would you identify as something we should be behind?

    1. alice Post author

      you can be part of something larger as a community, not around an individual, or communities in closed ways. Citizen science a much nicer model of connection if you ask me.

  6. Kieron Flanagan

    Well, it’s a fascinating topic this, isn’t it? The paradox at the heart of science is that it is, or aspires to be a global/universal enterprise and yet the groups and organisations that perform science are overwhelmingly funded as national ‘systems’ and for narrowly national reasons, each nation stewarding its little bit of the global scientific effort without very much thought as to to the other bits or how they might best work together. And when scientists themselves lobby for that funding they overwhelmingly emphasise a narrow national competitiveness rationale.

  7. andorffson

    Nice article, Alice. I share your discomfort at the nationalistic flag-waving being attached to science; one of the wonderful things about CERN is the sheer lack of any sort of border there: every nation, race and creed appear (to the casual observer, anyway…) to be working side by side and that’s how science should be: I really believe that science should transcend those barriers as we cure disease, harness clean energy and find ways to make Cheryl Cole’s hair even glossier.
    Is it the ‘Britishness’ that makes you uncomfortable, though, or its cynical manipulation in the name of marketing and political points scoring? I’m proud to be the kind of Englishman who’s kind to strangers, calm in a crisis (as long as there’s tea) and handy with a spanner should the need arise but I’m queasy every time I see Cameron in front of the union flag.
    The learned institutions, in my view, need to do more to make people who aren’t part of the academic in-crowd feel welcome. I think “Tracksuit Tuesdays” would be a good start…

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