Coutts in Conversation - Importance of Academia
Professor Brian Cox OBE and University of Manchester President Dame Nancy Rothwell share their latest thinking with Coutts clients
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Curiosity, collaboration and COVID – not an exact science
The value of “curiosity-driven science”, how universities could change following coronavirus and the government’s handling of the crisis – just three topics covered at our latest ‘Coutts in Conversation’ event.
It was the latest in a series of virtual sessions we’re hosting designed to connect our clients to leading insight on hot topics, introduced by Coutts Chairman Lord Waldegrave.
Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics and well-known documentary maker, and Dame Nancy were interviewed by entrepreneur and University of Manchester Honorary Professor Vikas Shah.
University challenge – and opportunity
Dame Nancy, who is Vice-Chancellor as well as President of the University of Manchester, said current events were likely to trigger a seismic shift in higher education.
She told us that the coronavirus crisis and ensuing lockdown gave universities “an opportunity to really re-think” how they operate.
In her view, “Things will change. There will be more done online, more done virtually. We will be travelling less, which is good for the planet as well as our time.”
She used one word to sum up the most important aspect of the potential changes ahead: “collaboration”.
“We have been driven down a route of all competing with each other on everything,” she explained. “But if we are really going to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems, and teach the next generation, we need to work together.”
She also had some reassuring words for parents of anyone returning to university after the summer.
“We are absolutely there to look after the students, and to be flexible and adaptable,” she told the audience. “Students can start their year online and join us as soon as they are ready. We will do our very best to make it a completely normal experience.”
The “Friday afternoon job” that forged a new way ahead
Answering a question about the importance of funding the sciences, Professor Cox said it was about nothing less than “the foundation of our civilisation”.
“In my mind, science is an attempt to understand nature in all its forms,” he commented. “We are trying to understand how nature works. Now that is clearly, self-evidently, not only useful, but essential.”
He spoke of the challenges governments face when deciding which areas to invest in.
“Knowledge generation in one field can lead to benefits in another,” he said. “But I think we’re not smart enough to say ‘if I invest in this particular, limited area, then we will solve these particular problems’. It’s a rather unpredictable process. But the more people you have doing it, and the better the support is, the more new knowledge we will generate.”
Professor Cox mentioned graphene as a great example of the benefits of what he called “curiosity-driven science”.
The material, which is only one atom thick but one of the strongest substances in the universe, was discovered by two scientists at Manchester University using little more than a block of graphite and some scotch tape.
“It was a Friday afternoon job,” Professor Cox said. “But there are applications for it in water filtration, for example, which may well end up contributing to better health outcomes and solving many of the problems with fresh water in developing countries.
“That wasn’t a result of investment in a project to solve that problem. It was the result of curiosity-driven science.”
A time for patience and reflection
Lord Waldegrave asked the speakers how they thought the UK’s response to the COVID crisis had gone.
In Professor Cox’s opinion, it’s important to have a wide-ranging and open-minded approach when searching for answers.
He said the decision-makers “shouldn’t just do what the scientists tell you to do because there are other people in society. There are also economists, health professionals, social scientists, and so on”.
“Obviously, in a fast-moving, complex environment, you have to take the best advice you can and make a decision based on that. And definitely do not point the finger at certain groups of scientists or individuals and say, ‘I just did what you told me to do’.”
He added, “It’s easy to criticise politicians, but they had to make decisions very quickly in a situation where we didn’t understand very much.”
Dame Nancy, who is co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, said it was “too early to say” whether things could, or could not, have been done better.
“I think it’s going to be some time before we understand what decisions we made and whether they were the right ones,” she commented.
She also spoke of “a very, very difficult position” when it came to the government’s reliance on science for its decision-making.
“The government says ‘we’re following the science”, but there is no such thing as ‘the science’ – this is too new,” she explained. “There is an explosion of understanding. Some people think science is fact. It’s not. It’s the weight of opinion at the time based on the evidence we have. And that can change the next day.”
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