Tag Archives: nationalism

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.