Science: For good or bad?

15 August 2016

Interview with

Tom Ziessen, Wellcome Trust

Science is usually touted as a good thing, but could there be a dark side? environmental protectionGraihagh Jackson debated this with Tom Ziessen... 

Tom - It becomes quite obvious as to 'why science?' when you look back at at all the advances that have happened.

So I'm Tom Zeissan. I am in the Engaging Science team at the Wellcome Trust.

Graihagh - I was interested in talking to Tom about Wellcome because, well, it provides science funding for thousands of people across the world. It's not a government body, it's a charity and thus has no obligations to do so. Why then does it? Well it starts with a chap called Sir Henry Wellcome...

Tom - He was an American marketeer; he was born in the mid-west and from an early age was trying to sell products to friends and family. He started out selling invisible ink, I think, was his first thing...

Graihagh - Invisible ink!

Tom - Invisible ink which was, just basically, lemon juice - I think he was sixteen when he started that.

He came over to the UK in the 1880s to found the Wellcome Foundation, and Henry Wellcome was always very interested in the arts and science of healing through the ages.

Henry died in 1936 and in his Will he set up the Wellcome Trust.

Graihagh - Because I think what's quite different about Wellcome is that most people get their funding from big research bodies from the government so, EPSRC, STFC, whereas Wellcome sits in this unusual sort of framework?

Tom - Yes, that's right. So we are a very large funder of research that's non-government - we're independent; we're not unique in that respect. But our funding supports, currently, over fourteen thousand people in more than seventy countries.

Graihagh - And I suppose that brings me onto my next question. I wonder - why science? -  why should science be put on a pedestal among all the other things that this money could be used for?

Tom - Actually, Wellcome Trust is not just interested in science. We're interested in all kinds of research related to health and wellbeing but, coming back to your question of: why do we place science as such an important part of what we do - it's because we think that science is a great way of giving us insights into the way the world works, the way we work. It becomes quite obvious as to 'why science?' when you look back at all the advances that have happened since 1936, or since the sort of scientific revolution and the improvements that's made to health and wellbeing.

Graihagh - But arguably it's not always been used for good things. I'm thinking the haber bosch process was used by the Nazi's as the poisonous gas in the holocaust, and then there's nuclear weapons. You've painted a very rosy picture of the use of science there.

Tom - Uh, yes. I mean, I think anything can be useful for bad purposes as well as for good purposes. That's not really a problem with science, that's really a problem with humanity and I don't think science is a force for good or evil. It's a way of understanding the world, understanding of what potential there is there but, hopefully, the majority of uses for it are beneficial.

Graihagh - I suppose the other side of this is that science has enabled populations to grow, it's enabled us to develop cars, which then produce lots of greenhouse gases. And I read this great quote that "man has survived millennia without science but may not survive a mere two centuries of science." With all these problems we're in some ways creating for ourselves, if that makes sense?

Tom - It does make sense. I think it's a very pessimistic view of the world but there's no question that there are problems related to scientific developments; there are more people around; they're living longer and using more resources. They're also happier, healthier and able to enjoy lives that wouldn't have been possible prior to science.

Graihagh - The future of science looks to be an interesting place. In the time that the Naked Scientists have been around, we've seen the advent of global warming and accelerated destruction of our natural world...

David Attenborough - This loss not only diminishes the beauty and diversity of the natural world, it also puts our own future in jeopardy.

Graihagh - And 3D printed guns...

So in this case what's happening is that you're downloading a digital file that defines this object - in this case a gun. You send that to a 3D printer which literally builds it up until you end up with a gun.

Graihagh - But also a new age of physics...

We have discovered a new particle, a boson. Most probably a Higgs boson but we have to find out which kind of Higgs Boson this is - what are its properties and where do they point to?

Ladies and gentleman... we have detected gravitational waves. We did it!

Graihagh - That only leads me to question - what next for science? Only time will tell...

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