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Politicians should look beyond GDP, says George Osborne

Policymakers should not always have to justify spending on science as an economic investment, the former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne has said.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Osborne, who became the editor of the Evening Standard newspaper this month, said: “I think sometimes we try too hard to find the economic value of things and we forget that we are human beings beyond just an economy.”

As chancellor, he said his decision to back spending on science was not just taken because he expected a clear or quick economic return.

“I always had an eye on the bottom line and I thought investment in science was good for the productivity of the economy and for the jobs it created,” Osborne said. “That for me was never really the fundamental reason why the country should invest in its scientists and revere its science.”

“You want to be promoting a culture of inquiry and a culture of research that doesn’t always have an obvious end product that can be commercialised or can add to GDP,” Osborne said. “That is a happy byproduct of a great scientific base.”

Osborne was being interviewed by Andre Geim, Regius professor at the University of Manchester, who is guest editing the 500th edition of Research Fortnight.

“I think your discovery of graphene is a classic example of that,” Osborne said, referring to the 2010 Nobel prize that Geim received with his Manchester colleague, Konstantin Novoselov.

“You didn’t set out to develop things that were going to make car tyres more efficient,” Osborne said. “That is not what Andre Geim set out to do in his life. I suspect if you’d set out to make car tyres more efficient you would have been looking at rubber compounds and not got very far.”

Their discussion was wide-ranging, covering Brexit, the technical competence of political leaders in the UK and China, and whether economics can be called a “science”.

Geim said that he had recently returned from a visit to China where he met politicians representing different cities and provinces. “In my experience, China’s politics is dominated by technocrats, while we hardly have ministers with technical education,” Geim told Osborne.

“China is one extreme, but I think Britain is another extreme, where the cabinet is dominated by history and politics,” he said.

In response, Osborne said that Margaret Thatcher trained as a chemist but he conceded that at the top of Britain’s political class, a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Oxford is certainly regarded as preparation for a life in politics.

“Maybe this is why Thatcher remains one of the most remembered prime ministers,” Geim commented.

China is different, Osborne said: “I’m not sure it’s a model of how to pick your politicians.” Part of the difference between the educational backgrounds of UK and Chinese leaders can also be attributed to the differing political cultures. The PPE degree prepares graduates for “public arguments and winning debates”, which, Osborne said, “is of course not so much so in China”.

He also observed that an argumentative culture is somewhat lacking among UK scientists in public engagement.

“I think sometimes scientists feel unnecessarily timid about getting involved in the public sphere and the public debate, saying: ‘That’s not for me, I’m a scientist and I’m going to stay in my lab.’”

Asked whether he favoured a hard or soft Brexit, Osborne said it was important that the UK’s researchers retained their links to Europe. But he recognised that a future relationship might not involve funding from the European Union’s Framework programme.

“Things like Horizon 2020 have been part of the EU, but we need to find a way to create that kind of network and that kind of support and funding outside the EU,” he said.

“One of the biggest things we could potentially lose would be that cross-European scientific community. While it was working perfectly well within the EU, we are now going to have to work hard to make sure it works outside the EU.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight‘s 500th issue, guest edited by Andre Geim.