Why Science Is Vital: Part 1

As part of the Science Is Vital campaign, I am going to write a series of posts about why I think science is so important. I am starting with an area of research, which I and many other scientists tend to feel a little uncomfortable: defence research. However, I think we will always need a strong science base to defend our hard-won freedoms and human rights. [[posterous-content:wohIjjhiuicwaJbIxqhg]]

Too often today, our forces are involved in offensive action outside our borders, but it should never be forgotten that defence research has played a critical role in securing our basic freedoms and democracy.

During World War II, what we would now call computer scientists working at Bletchley Park developed new machines and algorithms to crack the “unbreakable” Enigma code used by the Nazis to communicate with their submarines. By intercepting and decoding communications, they helped to break the maritime blockade of Britain, and provided an invaluable insight into Nazi plans and strategy. At the same time British defence researchers developed the use of radar for air defence providing advanced warning of Luftwaffe air-raids, and detailed targetting information for the Royal Air Force in our hour of greatest danger.

These breakthroughs and others helped protect Britain from invasion, enabling Allied forces to gather before D-Day and the decisive liberation of Western Europe. Without this research, it is doubtful that the Allies would have prevailed, and we would not be in a position today to pressurize our government about which areas of public spending should be protected from cuts.

The threats we face today are very different, but if properly supported current work for example in cryptography, quantum computing, cloaking, and space science will continue to provide powerful tools for defence in the decades to come. Critically all these developments depend on basic science conducted in universities – only through this fundamental research will we get the ideas and discoveries we will need to draw on in the future.

Let us hope our politicians are smart enough to protect the basic science that we need to stay one step ahead of aggressors, and in future to use these ideas and discoveries only in the defence of our national interests.

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