I have been fascinated for many years by the effectiveness of deep collaborations between industrial and university scientists, and have tried several experiments along those lines myself. For ten years I and a team of physicists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists from six UK universities worked with our industrial counterparts in six global companies in a giant project to elucidate and innovate with the molecular rules that govern the connection between molecular structure of polymers and the flow of their melts. A number of us currently run an industry-university PhD training centre in ‘Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces’ between the universities of Durham, Leeds and Edinburgh, and 24 companies in polymers, coatings, food and personal care.
The point here is emphatically not the usual ‘application of research’, or ‘public benefit of science’ stories. Told and retold by government departments to justify science spending, these Sheherezade-like tales that are needed every day to keep science funding from being cut-off I have criticized as part of the cultural lack of understanding around science today, in Faith and Wisdom in Science. No, the truth is that more intellectual traffic flows from industrial science into academic in a healthy collaboration – for the industrial research digs deeper than a disconnected academic lab would do, driven by business need into the rich loam of the world’s material complexity. And here new phenomena are discovered. This has been my experience for 30 years of doing science. The most satisfying fundamental pieces of science that I have bee involved with have all arisen from long-term industrial collaborations.
But the Maastricht folk have taken this to a new level and invested in a shared site – labs, computers, pilot-plants, … academic and industrial groups from several businesses sharing the same campus. I was impressed! Even more so that 3 or 4 times a year everyone is encouraged to come to hear an afternoon of two lectures. One is from an early-career scientist from university or industry, the other from a more experienced scientists. Topics are of general interest but usually scientific, so I was surprised and delighted when Brightlands asked me to talk on what is really a secular version of my thesis in Faith and Wisdom.
The point is that if science is to become recognised as a public and human good in a way that goes beyond the instrumental or the monster, to take two of the poles that Dave Hutchings and I describe in the new Let There Be Science, then the science-religion question needs to be defined anyway. For it is the theological tradition that leads to a rediscovery of the human purpose for science, and its human value in reconciling our precarious condition in the world.
Question time was fascinating – and one young scientist asked if I were able to stay for the Dutch March for Science – an international event, or series of events, taking place yesterday to appeal for the central importance of science in the face of its political marginalisation, especially in the USA. It’s a good point – science will become truly valued when the science community create other ways in to enjoy and contemplate science, as well as urging its vital role in establishing truth, and good policy.
I also sold out of an entire suitcase supply of both books!
Rather looking forward to going back there again next year, which I think is the plan.