Some things can’t be measured in money

As you read this, voters in the UK are about to head to the polls to elect their next government. Much of the discussion in the electoral run-up has focused on the make-up of our next coalition as the UK departs from decades of two party politics, and politicians have jostled for our attention with a smorgasbord of tasty policies to tempt the voting blocs. Science hasn’t featured prominently in any of these offerings, but all parties seem to be adhering to the line that ‘science is good for business’.

However, this rationale is based on what science can do for UK plc, and we should be careful not to let this skewed vision colour our own understanding of science’s value. And it’s not just science – the cash-in, cash-out model that has shaped our universities in recent years reinforces the proposition that the sole purpose of education and research is economic gain.

Education does of course have a financial value, but when that eclipses the other benefits of learning it has damaging consequences. As Philip Ball explains, the arts and sciences now find themselves pitted against one another in an economic arm wrestle. Scientists’ work is funded and harnessed to support the ‘knowledge economy’, and humanities academics resent them for hoovering up the cash. 

But while tying science to the Treasury may be a more rational approach to capitalism than the financial industry’s high-stakes speculation, it comes at a price: short-termist demands that smother and constrain. 

And the more neatly we truss ourselves, the more difficult it becomes to persuade political purse holders that value might exist beyond the bottom line. 

This value comes in both very tangible forms, and the ineffable and unquantifiable; what we gain from science, or the arts and humanities enriches all of humanity. When C P Snow separated the arts and sciences in his now infamous opening salvo of the ‘two cultures’ debate, he lamented the lack of scientific nous among his peers in the humanities, referencing their inability to describe the second law of thermodynamics. But while scientific enquiry may have deduced the second law, and indeed did so driven by economic concerns, its significance goes beyond the utilitarian, mechanical motives that first yoked heat, work and chaos together in service of the industrial revolution. 

What it reveals about the nature of the universe can be appreciated by anyone, and is possibly one of humanity’s most tragic realisations, capturing the futility and improbability of life’s battle to cling to existence against the most fundamental forces of physical reality. Equally, quantum mechanics’ uncomfortable conceptions of existence (swept under the metaphysical carpet by the ‘shut up and calculate’ attitude) raise questions for all of humankind, which inspire us to enquire and explore further.

Reducing learning of any kind to an audit of its economic contributions is destructive and narrow-minded. There are more things in heaven and Earth.