27 february 2009

Prime Minister gives Romanes lecture

Science | University

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The Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, today visited the University of Oxford to deliver the Romanes lecture on ‘Science and our Economic Future’.

He talked about the importance of scientific research and science as a route out of the global economic crisis. In particular he pledged to maintain the government’s investment in science and to double the number of state school pupils taking triple science by 2014.

Gordon Brown at Romanes lecture
The Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP gave the 2009 Romanes Lecture at Oxford

In his opening remarks, he said it was ‘a great pleasure to be here in Oxford…and to be invited to give the Romanes lecture, named after a scientist, one of Charles Darwin’s great friends.’ In order to build on the success of UK scientists, he said there were three key points of action: to make investment in science a national priority, to raise the status of science in education and to show that science matters to society and create a positive public debate about the proper role of science in the service of humanity.

He said: ‘Some say that now is not the time to invest, but the bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future. We will not allow science to become a victim of the recession – but rather focus on developing it as a key element of our path to recovery.’

He noted that 350 years ago, a group of scientists had met in Oxford and decided to form a group, to become the Royal Society. ‘When those Oxford scientists developed their empirical methods three and half centuries ago, it more than an idea; it was an idea about ideas. It was an insurrection of rationality against dogma, after which the world could quite literally never be the same again.’

He added that ‘a vital ingredient of our success is that UK scientists remain among the most outward-looking and globally connected – as I’ve seen today, visiting laboratories and institutions at this University.’

While not everyone is in the business of science, science is the business of everyone. We will not allow science to become a victim of the recession – but rather focus on developing it as a key element of our path to recovery.

The Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP

The Prime Minister urged scientists to rise to the challenge of communicating the ‘joy and discovery of science’ to the public, so that everyone was equipped to take part in the debates to which science was central. ‘While not everyone is in the business of science, science is the business of everyone,’ he said.

He spoke about the teaching of science in schools, announcing: ‘We will work towards all pupils having access to single subject science teaching – with a guarantee that 90 per cent of all state schools will offer this within the next five years. Alongside this we will set a clear aim to double, by 2014, the number of pupils in state schools taking triple science. This will mean over 100,000 pupils a year. And – since we have already passed our initial A-level maths entry target for 2014 – we will replace this with a new target of 80,000 young people taking A-level maths within the next five years.’

Before the lecture, the Prime Minister visited Oxford’s new Biochemistry building, where he met scientists from across the University for a roundtable discussion.

Gordon Brown with University Challenge winner Gail TrimbleAfter the lecture, he joined members of the University, including students such as the University Challenge finalists, captain Gail Trimble and her team-mates, at a reception in the Divinity School. In addition, he had a chance to view some of the treasures of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, including a Magna Carta and the papers of a previous Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

The Romanes Lecture is an annual public lecture at Oxford University. The first was given in 1892 by William Gladstone. Subsequent speakers have included Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Edward Heath, AJP Taylor, Tony Blair, Sir Paul Nurse and Muhammad Yunus.

At midday, the Prime Minister was welcomed by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Hood, and introduced to the Registrar, Dr Julie Maxton, and Professor David Sherratt, Iveagh Professor of Microbiology, deputising for the Head of Biochemistry.Gordon Brown with Vice Chancellor John Hood and Chancellor Lord Chris Patten of Barnes

They escorted the Prime Minister on a short tour of the University’s new Biochemistry building, a distinctive building with glass facades and coloured glass ‘fins’. It brings together 300 lecturers, researchers, and students previously based in a number of separate buildings across the University’s Science Area. Inside, a large open atrium with breakout spaces and specially commissioned artworks encourages collaboration between the researchers.

He was shown a microscopy demonstration which segregated a newly-fertilized fruit-fly egg. Defects in chromosome duplication and segregation, which occurs before eggs divide, can lead to cell death and to diseases like cancer and Down’s syndrome. The microscopy demonstration will show an experiment to support the hypothesis that newly duplicated chromosomes are held together by cohesin, a ring-shaped protein. At the onset of normal cell division, a protease (protein-cleaving protein) called ‘separase’ cleaves the cohesin ring, thereby allowing onset of chromosome segregation. Better understanding of the process may ultimately help understand and treat diseases caused by faults in the process.

Gordon Brown during a visit to the Department of BiochemistryThe Prime Minister then participated in a roundtable discussion with a range of Oxford scientists, including those who have set up spinout companies to commercialise their research and a representative of Isis, the University’s technology transfer arm. The discussion was on scientific and medical research at Oxford and the benefits they bring to the UK economy and in tackling the global challenges of the 21st century.

Dr Constantin Coussios and Professor Peter Friend spoke about their spinout OrganOx, which is developing a device for sustaining organs outside the body using blood at normal body temperatures. Dr Malcolm McCulloch spoke on his spinout Intelligent Sustainable Energy Ltd, formed between Navetas Energy Management and Oxford University, which has created technologies to help people reduce and manage their energy consumption. Dr David Gavaghan spoke about Doctoral Training Centres.

After his Biochemistry visit the Prime Minister gives the Romanes Lecture in the Sheldonian to an audience of around 1,000, made up of University academics, staff and students, plus members of the public.

Gordon Brown and Sarah Thomas

The Prime Minister then had a short private viewing of some treasures from the Bodleian Library. He saw an original 1217 reissue of Magna Carta, one of the keystones of civil liberty; St Margaret’s Gospel-book, owned in the 11th century by Margaret, Queen of Scots, renowned for her goodness and learning; some papers by former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan; and the manuscript of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. 

The Prime Minister then attended a reception with various members of the University, including students, researchers in the social sciences and researchers in the humanities.