What gets children into science? The stuff we’re cutting… like Jodrell Bank


Dr Aust is, in case you hadn’t guessed by now, A Grumpy Old Fart.

Well, a Grumpy Middle-aged Fart, to be exact.

(I have searched high and low for an age definition of “middle aged” that WON’T include me, but I have finally had to admit defeat.)

So I am middle aged.

BUT: once I was young. Honest.

One of the things middle-aged people with Blogs do a fair bit of is wondering how they got to where they have ended up, life and career-wise.

So… how did I get interested in science?

Well, I did have a relative in the family generation above me who was a scientist, but I never had much idea what he did, except that it took place somewhere called a “laboratory”. Said relative was once persuaded to come to my school and show us kids a laser, and a hologram, which was quite neat. And he once tried to teach me physics, which ended in tears after about an hour. I have never been much good at physics.

But I’m pretty sure that wasn’t why I got interested.

No, personally I blame, inter alia, Gerald_Durrell’s books about animals, John F Kennedy and the manned space programme, Gene “Star Trek” Roddenberry, Look_and_Learn magazine and the sadly-no-longer-extant London_Planetarium.

Because: how could any small boy NOT be interested in animals, and fossils, and dinosaurs, and rocks, and volcanoes, and moon rockets, and space travel, and stars?

The path from there to my corner of cell biology and physiology is a bit tortuous. But I still think that the natural world, and all the remarkable things in it, on it, under it and visible from it, are where science starts to exert a fascination on the young. Junior Aust, now approaching four, is being shown how to plant seeds, and told (as much as possible) how the cartoons she likes to watch on Youtube arrive on the screen down the telephone wires, and where real tigers live (she is fond of tigers).


But what if Pop Idol is more interesting?

Common to most scientists I know, when feeling pessimistic, is the view that if we can’t get children interested in the natural world, then we will not be able to get them interested in science later on. With all kinds of (bad) consequences.

So any thing, or place, that tries to get children interested is A Good Thing, in my book.

Oddly, it seems the UK Government does not agree, despite all the tedious oily “Of Course”-ing about how vitally important science is to the nation’s future prosperity.

Thirty odd miles down the road from Chez Dr Aust is the Jodrell_Bank Observatory. This is a major site for UK astrophysics research, and specifically for radio astronomy. The Lovell_telescope, which is 50 yrs old, is one of those objects/ images that almost personify scientific research, testifying to the slightly bonkers constructional genius of some scientists and their endearingly obsessed determination to find things out. It must be one of the most recognisable objects associated with UK science. I first saw it when I was about 30, but I had seen a picture of it in a book when I was no more than 5 years old. And it is undeniably impressive – I’ve seen the Jodrell telescope, and Dolly_the_sheep, close-up, and the telescope wins hands down.

But Jodrell Bank is more than that. It also has a science visitors’ centre. And a Planetarium (sadly currently shut for repairs). And a 30+ acre garden and arboretum you can wander round with over 3000 plant species. And it is reasonably cheap to get into, even if you take an entire family.

So to summarize: cheek by jowl with a place where real scientists do real science, a national centre yet, you can take the children to a stardome simulation, or wander the garden with them and look at the trees and plants. You, and they, can stand right underneath the Lovell telescope and test the echo.

The Jodrell Visitors’ Centre also do science outreach events. They host school visits, for children of all ages. If you take a Physics A level group there, you can have real professional research astrophysicist come and talk to the class. The Observatory also teaches undergraduate, and PhD, students.

And so on, and so on.

In an era where we science-geeks are continually told to do our bit to inform the public about what we do, and “engage” with them, you would have thought Jodrell exemplified exactly how these things ought to be done.


So what is happening?

Whoops – the government is cutting the funding for the major current research project at Jodrell. Because they have screwed up the budgeting.


The project this pays for is called “MERLIN”, which stands for Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network. Essentially it is a network of radio telescopes around the UK linked together. By linking them they can do radio-astronomy as if they were a super-large radio telescope. That is basically as much of it as I understand – I told you I was terrible at physics – so if you want to know more start reading here.

MERLIN cost £ 9 million or so to build, and costs £ 2.7 M a year to run, money that had been promised by a UK Govt Agency called the Science and Technology Facilities Council.(STFC). However, despite all the endless puffing about “record funding levels” and “a Golden Age for UK science funding” coming from Govt spokesmen, the STFC has had a 25% cut in its budget for these major projects and facilities, and the axe is now starting to fall.

Big cuts are to be made. And they say the MERLIN programme will be one of the things to go.

[The more cynical among you might think that cutting MERLIN possibly reflects two other things: first, the Govt doesn’t see the point of astronomy and astrophysics research, as it doesn’t have many wealth-generating spin-offs; and second, Jodrell Bank is in the North of England, rather than in the (electorally important) South-East.]

Obviously the cutting of MERLIN will be terrible news for the radio astronomy people. And for astrophysics generally. And it will waste the money already invested in building the thing.

But it will do more than that. Without the MERLIN project, it is a good bet that the entire Jodrell site will become uneconomic to run. Given that Jodrell’s parent University of Manchester has been having a bit of a financial belt-tightening, they are hardly going to be finding a spare £ 2.7 million a year.

So there is a very really chance that a centre of scientific excellence with a sixty-year tradition, an icon of UK science, a popular visitor attraction, and a place that every years encourages many thousands of kids to take a greater interest in science and the natural world, will shut. And all while ministers continue to make smarmy speeches full of ringing phrases about creating:

“…a society that is excited about science, values its importance, feels confident in its use, and supports a representative, well-qualified scientific workforce”.


Ian Pearson, Minister for Science and Innovation, speaking at the launch of the Public Engagement Beacon Scheme on 30 Jan 2008.


Nothing like “Joined-up thinking” in government, eh?


– I will leave you to think about that last one.


PS If you agree with me that cutting MERLIN and potentially shutting down the Jodrell Observatory is an utterly f*!ckwitted idea, and would like to tell the (Sub) Prime Minister what you think, there is an e-Petition you can sign here.


EDIT – Good grief – I find myself agreeing with something written in the Peoples’ Medical Journal, I mean, the Daily Mail. They have a good article about Jodrell, and its founder Bernard Lovell, here.


And finally…

A HANDY GUIDE to some of the things you can get for £ 2.7 Million:

– Annual cost to taxpayer of the MERLIN project at Jodrell Bank observatory

– Approximate amount of expenses claimed last year by cabinet ministers

– 40% of the cost of the recent refurbishment of the House of Commons wine cellars*

Annual salaries of four average Premiership footballers (approx £ 0.65 million pa each)

– Amount Chelsea football star Frank Lampard Jr, and TV Personawity Jonathan Ross, are each rumoured to earn in around five months.

– Approximate cost of British military spending on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan every SEVEN HOURS**

*See 6th March entry here

**Based on March 10th figures from House of Commons Defence Ctte giving an estimated cost of £ 3.3 Billion for the current financial year. Note that recent work by economists (e..g Nobel Prizewinner Prof Joseph Stiglitz) looking at US spending, and estimating “indirect” costs as well as directly attributable ones, suggest that the true cost may be several times higher than the “official” estimates.


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