In November Fred Sanger died, aged 95. He was never a household name, but he should have been. The only Briton – and one of only three people in history – to have won two Nobel prizes in science, his contributions encompassed laying the basis for the sequencing of proteins and genes.
He was in exalted company: the other two are Marie Curie, the pioneer of research into radioactivity, and John Bardeen, who invented the transistor and later helped develop the theory of superconductivity (without which MRI scanning would not exist).
Sanger’s death made headlines around the world, and even a few in Britain. But the truth is that this government – more than any previous one – has little time for science or for scientists. For all that they bang on about scientific literacy, ministers avoid the results of science: they make policy based on prejudice, not on facts.
And Sanger never played the fame game. Unlike several recent and perhaps more politically prominent Nobel laureates, he turned down the offer of a knighthood that always comes to Nobel prizewinners. He didn’t make a fuss about this, though he did tell a journalist he didn’t want to be called “Sir”.
But Britain also gained a new laureate last year, Peter Higgs, famous for the “Higgs boson”, the fundamental particle that institutes like CERN in Switzerland have been searching for – and, it seems, might well have found. Higgs turned down a knighthood in 1999. “I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly,” he told a Guardian journalist in December. “A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.” How refreshing!
Both men shared the quality of being self-effacing, not seeking fame and certainly not claiming it where they thought it wasn’t due. Sanger famously said that he was “just a chap who messed about in a lab”. Higgs has also gone on the record saying the media should stop using the term “God particle” to describe the Higgs boson (because as an atheist he doesn’t believe in God). And he has said the so-called Higgs mechanism should be called the “ABEGHHK'tH mechanism”, after the people who discovered it.
Higgs has never endeared himself to university officialdom. Now in his 80s, he thinks he would have been sacked from Edinburgh University in the 1960s for his trade union activity (as a member of the AUT, the forerunner of the UCU), his support for student protest, and the dearth of papers he produced – and that only rumours of a Nobel prize at the time saved him.
With the government intent on forcing children as young as 10 to take state exams, and piling the curriculum with deadly dull rote learning, the lives of these two scientists show how little the government understands about creativity.
Sanger struggled with mathematics at Cambridge, and described himself as “academically not brilliant”. Higgs has said he wasn’t very good at physics at school. He won school prizes for languages, English, chemistry and maths, but not physics. (And last year’s British winner of the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine, John Gurdon, related how his teachers at Eton told him he was too stupid for science.) Spot the pattern?
When you look at current government educational policy – or that of the previous government for that matter – its fixation with targets, its disregard for evidence and its rubbishing of original thought, you have to fear for the future of British science.
Our education system, whatever its faults, has proved brilliant at producing people who can think. That, and our technological, industrial past, is why a small island like Britain can have produced so many scientific advances. So while we should praise our scientists, we must also fight to preserve the conditions that nurtured their talents. ■