Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Chilean miners: 'science' is vital in this human story

It has been a momentous week. The world is watching 33 men saved by a clunky steel rocket and a host of saints in hard-hats and hazard jackets. It is an almost unbelievable story, except that we are watching it in every tiny detail on TV. Today, it was also the day in which the Science Is Vital campaign closed their petition to defend funding for science research in British universities, and the day after Lord Browne proposed the biggest change to student funding in two generations. And the week before the biggest cuts to university funding since the last slash and burn policy of the mid 1980s.

The irony of this rescue won't be lost on the science geeks: the people who are pulling the miners out of the ground are utterly dependent on university science: their training, their gadgets, their pulleys and winches and cages and breathing apparatuses and bio-belts ALL built from the brains of the geeks. Sure, the block and tackle (or whatever) is made and greased by worker-bees, but the buck stops with those doing the thinking, and the design. The geeks - in effect - got them out.

Some tweeters have objected that the geeks got them in there in the first place. Maybe. There is a mining and geology specialism in universities of course. But profiteering mine owners have been around far longer than the appliance of science started to make things go further, deeper and both safer and more dangerous simultaneously. Given the choice of a bloke with a gold pen and a dodgy record of exploitation, and a spotty, pale youth with an obsession for torque, I know who I'd rather have writing the manual. OK, and perhaps a raft of experienced burly miners to help him 'apply' his writing...

You can't escape the value of science in this human drama however - whatever recriminations rightly emerge about the safety failures in this mine, we all need to be grateful in part to the science. I hope the Science Is Vital campaign will exploit this link as much as they need to.

Next week, when the Comprehensive Spending Review slashes funding, the biggest cut will come - in teaching and research - in the Arts and Social Sciences. The teaching budget is likely to be all but wiped out, and it is hard to see how Research Council funds will be held at anything like current levels. Who cares?, most of the press and public will say. It will seem to make little difference to anyone's lives. The 'Science vote' will care very little too, barring a few with a broad education, because of their own sense of the necessity of their own disciplines, compared to ours.

But what will happen to these miners now? And how will the rest of us make sense of the 'miracle' (or 'tragedy')? The science bit is easily seen: the gadgets, manuals, experts are evident to the world at large. Nobody will, however, make too much of the lengthy training of the eloquent psychiatrist Dr James Thompson, commenting for the BBC, which although medical in part, could not possibly have succeeded had he not developed some grasp of the human condition from other sources. How could Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott, Piaget and countless other contributors to the understanding of the human personality have known what they know without cultural ideas? How could we all 'get' the drama of rescue, without a narrative of, erm, drama? More prosaically, who will be behind the film makers, writers, journalists who need to be there (perhaps not in quite such volume...) to help the rest of us make sense ? Perhaps the political plan in shutting down the debate is to get everyone to just shut up, and stop trying to make sense of difficult events. The chattering classes have been desperately annoying for the right wing, doing what they do to ask questions and all...

Look, I'm not suggesting people won't make sense without the hidden hand of Peter Mandelson telling us what to think. The point is more general: humans need to make sense and make meaning, and will continue to do it. Ordinary bods do it better, mostly, than lily-livered, soft-handed academics. But the writing, thinking, the ideas generated in arts, humanities and social science departments DO make a difference, albeit in subtle and small ways. A sociologist might help a family therapist trying to put back together those miners' broken relationships once the reality of wife vs mistress hits home. And an artist might help those traumatised children sleep at night. And a philosopher might contribute to a think tank who pushes the Chilean prime minister to rewrite his mining policy, so that the value of human life is reassessed. Someone really will, perhaps, be saved by a historian in a cord jacket, reflecting on this day. Even those betes noires of the Establishment, Meeja Studies graduates, might have their part to play. Not as the journalists (we all know they have Oxbridge degrees in English, which somehow escape the oppobrium...) who bring it all to our living rooms; but as the parents, teachers, managers, friends who say, in their pub or office conversations: 'hey, never mind the distracting rescue narrative, we're ignoring the back story about exploitation here...'.

Do we need to do this in universities? Should the public pay for it? Of course it should. Otherwise we leave all our big questions to blokes with gold teeth who give answers influenced by their paymasters. Good luck to the Science lobby - they need it. They have the luxury of knowing they can do what the public can't. We need more luck and more support, because the public thinks they don't need us. They do.

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