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Contingency - but no plan

Ted Nield

Ted Nield admits to having something for which to thank the Iron Lady…

Geoscientist 18.7, July 2008

I have to confess something. I remain deeply grateful to Margaret Hilda Thatcher, the first woman, and first scientist PM – and now almost universally disowned by both groups. I promise to explain - so once you regain consciousness, read on.

A recent review of British Nobel laureates* revealed how the 1980s saw an unprecedented exodus of top-flight UK scientists to the USA, most of whom now cite the milk-snatcher as their principal propellant. Mrs Thatcher had successfully enacted various anti-intellectual policies kicked off by Labour science minister Shirley Williams - with her infamous (and now largely forgotten) "13 Points", saying "For scientists the party is over".

Scientists, as usual, had not been aware of a party going on anywhere; nevertheless they did not know how lucky they had been until the coiffured one hove into view, with her chemistry degree and Prime Ministerial FRS. Mrs T said to academics: "You toil not, and do precious little spinning that seems to me to be useful. Consider the market in thy field. Look to where the money is to be made, and go and do thou likewise".

Many took her at her word - and moved to better funded universities in the US. Having torpedoed the universities, and allowed the captains to escape in the only lifeboats, boiler-room grease-monkeys like me at the bottom of the academic ladder were having the hatches closed on us as we fought to beat the surging waters. We may have wanted post-docs, but those few available went to existing post-docs - who couldn't get lectureships because there weren't any of those, either. We had to stay in the boiler rooms and sink or swim with industry.

Margaret Thatcher For many it was the making of them; my student flat-mate is now a Petroleum Group Silver Medallist. For me it was a revelation. While staring down a microscope at nasty greenish rocks chosen for economic rather than academic interest, I discovered that 99% of the crust consists of a substance usually referred to with a four-letter word beginning in s and ending in t. University petrography is really geo-pornography.

I (and my hapless employer) also discovered that I had mainly bluffed my way through a scientific education with little more than a talent for literary imitation. So I did what I should have done in the first place and became a journalist.

And from all this I learned a lesson that Steve Gould had been trying to teach his readers for years – a message that also emerges from Richard Fortey’s most recent book (see Reviews) namely, that without environmental change natural selection is a deeply conservative process, and change – whatever its motivation - is a stimulus. Steve wrote well, but as even he would have admitted, not as well as Ecclesiastes 9.11 - a verse whose number now spookily stands for senseless mass extinction:

"…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."

* Raisz, Matthew: From brain drain to bright future Times Higher Education 8.5.08, p31-35