While astronaut-training in Russia, I was surprised to see the high esteem in which people held science, even outside the space community.
Music, literature and science were discussed in equal measure at parties, people seemed well-informed about many scientific issues, and everyone seemed to have an opinion. In that regard, they were rich. Science was part of their psyche.
Perhaps it was because Communist life then was relatively good for scientists. I often heard it said that under a repressive regime, only in science can you have real freedom of thought, seeking truths untainted by Big Brother’s gaze. The space race boosted science in many ways, not least giving the Soviet people a reason to be proud – though they knew that not all science was equally well-funded. Recently an old Russian friend reminded me of a joke that went around after Krushchev had spoken of the need to catch up with America: “catching up is fine, but we’d better not overtake or the Americans will see our naked back side!”
State funding for scientific projects is tight in many countries, but particularly so in Russia at the moment. Institutes are closing, and there is a brain drain to America. No matter that Americans typecast scientists as do we Brits: bespectacled old men in white coats with no sense of style, no interests outside work and definitely no sex life. In America there is money for science, albeit often from private companies, and NASA keeps the profile of science high.
But what of Britain? The Industrial Revolution created a need to develop science. People saw how science opened up new opportunities and provided wealth. However, as the nineteenth century progressed, science in Britain became associated with the dirty end of industry. Apart from an occasional peak like our excitement about the human genome being sequenced, science has been in the doldrums of British culture ever since, regarded anyone with style as an unseemly activity.
Our politicians have liked to fund sport as a way of promoting national pride. Unfortunately, this only works if the national team actually wins. Much less risky is to invest in high-profile science, as American and Soviet leaders did during the Cold War. This will have the knock-on effect of enriching cultural life and enhancing casual conversation, as in Britain 200 years ago, when Michael Faraday’s science events at the Royal Institution were so popular the streets outside were brought to a stand-still, jammed with the horse-drawn carriages of people desperate to watch his lectures.
Scientific institutions should be much more accessible for us to see exactly what the scientists there do. “Open days” happen on a regular basis in China, where the State is trying to improve people’s knowledge of science in order to gain economic success. It is no surprise, then, that China is also investing in high profile science, in the form of astronauts.
One of many letters I have received from children after visiting schools to talk about space included the line: “When Helen Sharman walked in she was a normal person.” The poor little one was probably devastated that I hadn’t landed my spacecraft in the playground and removed my helmet to reveal an egg-head, but at least he realised that normal folk can do amazing things with science, and I know many people who have been inspired after chatting to scientists at work.
Lastly, there’s that awful word “scientist”, guaranteed to make you spit just trying to enunciate it properly. While social and political processes are by far the most important factors in forming our perception of science, there is something interesting about the word ‘scientist’ in different languages. Of those I know about, Arabic, German, Hungarian, Russian and Turkish use their words for “scientist” in a wider sense than English does, to mean “scholar” or “someone with knowledge”.So it was in English before 1725, when “science” meant knowledge more generally. As science gained momentum, English (and some other closely-related languages) separated what we now know as scientific knowledge from other knowledge, and the word “scientist” was born bang in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. People who speak those other languages tend to look upon science more favourably than English speakers, so let’s just get rid of “scientists”. Anyone fancy a “natural philosopher”?