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Q&A with George Osborne: ‘Chancellors don’t always get their way’

The former chancellor-turned-editor of the Evening Standard talks candidly to Andre Geim, guest editor of Research Fortnight’s 500th issue.

Q: When you were chancellor of the exchequer, you regarded science as being important for the UK. Why?

A: The fundamental reason why science is important is that it speaks to the human spirit to discover more about our world and who we are and how our world operates. Sometimes we try too hard to find the economic value of things and we forget that we are human beings beyond just an economy. If you are a country that wants to be part of the future of the world, you want to be at the forefront of 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 your GDP.

A commercial product is a happy byproduct of a great science base. But I think countries that give up on science, countries that allow their universities to decline, are taking a back seat in the world and that’s not the country I want. Here we are in Manchester, a city where they split the atom and developed the world’s first storage computer. I’ve got teenage children and I don’t want to look them in the eye and say—as we talk about scientific discoveries—that used to be us but it’s not us anymore. I want it to be us today. 

So even though as chancellor of the exchequer of course 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, that for me was never really the fundamental reason why the country should invest in its scientists and revere its science.

How widely held is that view among politicians? 

In politics, as in university or faculty administration, most of your life is spent trying to make the salaries add up; you keep within your budget and raise more money for your department. When you’re running a country you have similar concerns: if you don’t get those things right then everything else goes wrong. Politics is just a word we use to describe how human beings interact with each other and choose to run their societies. Without being too grand about it, you need to understand there’s a fundamental purpose to elevate the human condition, to make the most of our time on this planet and make the most of the extraordinary abilities of the human species.

A balance has to be struck between the economy and investing in understanding nature, but the latter is often forgotten by politicians. What should scientists do to explain the worth of research better to politicians who may not hold the same views as you?

I think there’s a happy coincidence here, that countries spending a lot on fundamental research are also countries whose economies tend to be most productive. So you can certainly point that out to politicians and business leaders and people who pay their taxes. And let’s never forget we’re asking people who work in a factory or work in a shop to take some of the money they earn and give it to the government to spend on science, instead of their family. So you have to explain what that money is for.

So you can point to the fact that it makes our economy more successful. Not because you can identify that the investment of a hundred pounds is going to create the non-stick frying pan, or other invention. But you can point to economic studies by universities and international bodies such as the OECD. They all come to the same conclusion, that investment in science is an investment in the productivity of your economy, even if you cannot join the dots between the money that goes into the physics or the chemistry laboratory and the commercial products that might emerge at the end.

I think your discovery of graphene is a classic example of that. You didn’t set out to develop things that were going to make car tyres more efficient—that is not what Andre Geim set out to do in his life. But a happy byproduct of your basic desire to know more about the world and discover more about our surroundings, and your instinctive inquisitiveness and your questioning of what a smear of carbon is like, ends up with potential commercial developments. 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.

That’s correct. But if you asked a voter whether they would give a hundred pounds for fundamental research, or the NHS, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? They would want to fund the NHS. How do you explain to people that we need a long-term future; that we need experts, because according to Michael Gove, ‘We have had enough of experts.’

People know that when they go into an NHS hospital they want the hospital to be well-funded, and they want to have great beds and great nurses and great doctors. But they also know that the treatment they’re receiving—the latest cancer drug, the latest treatment to help with multiple sclerosis or even the latest thing to prevent a scratch on your leg becoming an infection that kills you—is the product of science. They are the products of generations who were not setting out to run giant pharmaceutical companies, but working to make human beings have healthier lives and live longer. And I think that’s quite easy to explain to people.

Listening to your enthusiasm about fundamental science, any regrets about studying philosophy and politics at Oxford?

I studied science at O-level, as it used to be called, and I really enjoyed it. I had a lovely time studying history but like many, many British people who are not scientists, I love reading about science. I like reading about people who’ve made breakthroughs in our scientific revolution, and I want to be in a society among those people. 

As chancellor you were most closely involved with a particular branch of science, economics. Is economics justifiably called the ‘dismal science’?

I’m not sure economics is a science, in the same way that you would understand it. Economics has the appearance of science because at times it is quite mathematical. But my criticism of economics teaching in Britain is that it’s become a bit too science-like and a bit too theoretical. It’s been forgotten that economics is dealing with human beings and the interaction between human beings, and that it’s quite difficult sometimes to discern human motives. People don’t always look for the ‘maximum utility’.

The most interesting field in economics in the last 20-30 years has been behavioural economics—the discovery that human beings aren’t always like economic models. One of the things I tried to do as chancellor was to start an initiative in the British economics profession to pull us away from the ultra-theoretical, model-based approach, to try to get people to think about public-policy decisions in the economic sphere. 

One of our challenges was filling spaces on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. We wanted the very best people in the world.  And quite often we found that people who had studied overseas had a better grasp of public policy, even if they weren’t necessarily as good as theoretical economists. I think there’s lots of space for theoretical economists but people should remember that economics is about the ordering of human societies and you can’t leave the human out of that.

I have just returned from a week in China, meeting party secretaries from different cities and provinces. China’s politics is dominated by technocrats, while we hardly have a minister with technical education. China is one extreme, but I think Britain is another extreme where the cabinet is dominated by history, politics…

Of course the last scientist who was a prime minister was Margaret Thatcher, she was a chemist.

Maybe this is why she remains one of the most remembered PMs. In China, President Xi Xinping has a technical background; nearly everyone in the Politburo has.

China is a particular culture, and I’m not sure it’s a model of how to pick your politicians. It’s true China has a reverence for science. We also have a reverence for science in Britain, but it’s true to say that the political tradition in Britain has been—and I’m not saying this is right—that you do an arts [or] humanities degree, such as PPE at Oxford, and that is preparation for life in politics.

Are you saying this is because of a historical bias?

It’s partly about making public arguments, which is of course not so much so in China. Public arguments and winning debates, there’s a teaching of this particularly. I think actually 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 laboratory.”

I have lived and worked in half a dozen different countries, but one thing that really amuses me about British foreign policy is this ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It seems to me that the US bullies everyone equally but only the British feel the need to express “special thanks” for that. I noticed that as chancellor you tried to find a balance with the new world, with Asia and particularly China.

I brought the president of China to your laboratory.

Nothing is forever. Britain, once the leader of the world, was overtaken by the US. Now, a significant part of this global power will go to China. We are seeing this change quite clearly in science.  A decade ago, I would go to the US twice a year. Now I go to China twice a year. And I probably go to the US only every second year.

I think you’re posing a bit of a false dilemma here. The US has been a defender of world order and democracy.  And for all the mistakes it’s made it has overwhelmingly been a force for good. Many of the ideas that shape the American identity were ideas born out of an enlightenment in the UK. You can see this thinking in the American constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But having a strong relationship with the US and working with it on problems doesn’t mean you can’t work with other countries or treat other countries with respect.

China is an ancient civilisation, representing one sixth of the world’s population and it has an absolutely legitimate right to have its voice heard in the world and be respected. Britain can help play a role in making sure that happens. Not only do I think that will be to our mutual benefit, but I think the alternative of trying to deny China its rightful seat at the world’s table would be very foolish and potentially dangerous. 

China and Britain are two cultures on opposite sides of the globe that have done huge amounts to influence a lot of thinking in the rest of the world. We’re both mercantile nations; nations that respect science; nations whose language and culture has had an influence beyond our shores. There is a kind of respect for each other. 

As chancellor of the exchequer, sometimes I took decisions that were not supported by the US, indeed were opposed by the US, such as the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was a Chinese idea. But I’m very proud that we did take those decisions.

Let’s discuss Brexit. Is the general election on 8 June an opportunity for people to recast their votes?

That’s the sort of question that we should leave to the Evening Standard to ask, in my new role. But I will say that the country voted to leave the European Union, very much against my advice. I’m sad that was the outcome of the referendum, but it is what it is. I think that one of the areas where we’ve really got to work hard to make sure we preserve a European community is in science. And things such as 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 neutral support and funding outside the EU.

I think 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.

You were clearly a pragmatic chancellor. But many researchers have recently seen a lot of dogmatism coming from the government. For example, leaving students out of the immigration statistics would be pragmatic.

I made the argument when I was in government that we shouldn’t include students in the overall immigration number.  I think the fact that Britain welcomes lots of students to its universities is not just a good thing for our universities and their funding—which is the rather narrow way of looking at it—but it’s also great for British influence in the world. We have alumni all around the world who have spent some years in our great universities and, as a result, think with great affection about Britain. I think it makes the culture of inquiry in our universities stronger and more diverse.

But the government that you were a part of did not listen.

Even chancellors of the exchequer don’t always get their own way. 

Your sense of humour is not always recognised. Journalists, for example, regularly mock your love for hi-vis gear and for opening buildings. How would you respond?

Just being lampooned for wearing a hi-vis jacket, that to me showed that my message was getting through; that things are happening and we’re building things in this country, which is why I had my hi-vis jacket on.

One of the things that makes British politics very robust and enduring, and one of the reasons why this country has been a very strong democracy, is because we poke fun at our politicians. You can go back to the 18th century when you had absolutist France, Tsarist Russia; America was a colony and China was under some imperial dynasty. And in Britain they were producing Gillray cartoons of the chancellors of the day being lampooned and defecated upon and all sorts of things.  Thankfully, I think we get a better deal than our 18th century forebears. 

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