A few years ago, someone with an interest in dynamical systems devised a complex financial product that allowed banks and other larger corporations to achieve a good return on their investments at limited risk. But it turned out that their money was not as safe as they thought, and things went belly up. Banks lost money hand over fist, some ended up bankrupt, while the taxpayer bailed others out. The global economy took a nosedive, and countries ended up being much more in debt than they would have liked. As the next general election approaches, we are told that things are improving in the UK, but the deficit is large, and it is not coming down as quickly as expected. This is a serious problem, and something that will take time to sort out. There must have been many very difficult meetings in Whitehall, with departments told they need to spend less money and, where possible, generate money. Whether one agrees with this strategy or not, the logic behind it is straightforward to follow: we need to pay off our debts so we should spend less money and generate more of it.
At one of these meetings, or a subsequent meeting that cascaded from it, it must have dawned on someone that the science that government funds could generate money. Yet simultaneously it was costing cash. So the government departments and the research councils that fund science in the UK were squeezed with their budgets shrinking in real terms, and the focus of the science they fund is more targeted at wealth generation.
The amazing success of science in producing new medicines, in improving the standard of living of many around the world, in providing ever more productive crops, in feeding into technology and of designing new materials, gives it immense value. The success – and wealth – of the modern world is to a large extent a product of the successes of science. At first glance it might consequently seem obvious that given the repeated successes of science in generating advances and wealth, that to generate more wealth you simply need to tell scientists to get on with it. But sadly it is not usually as simple as that. If scientists could easily generate wealth, particularly for themselves, they probably would. Many scientists I know, and particularly those early in their careers, would love to earn more money. The problem is you can’t simply tell a scientist to generate wealth and then sit back. It doesn’t work like that.
As all scientists know, the reason for this is that the economic benefits of a scientific breakthrough may not be immediately apparent. Newton, for example, spent his time trying to turn base metals into gold, and in developing calculus. I suspect that if funding councils had existed back then, they would have funded his alchemy work rather than his research into mathematics. Yet the wealth creation that has come from the derivation of the first calculus must be immense. Perhaps it is the most lucrative scientific breakthrough in history.
The world currently faces various issues ranging from the financial mess we are in, through to climate change, to diminishing resources. What is our best bet to solve these issues? Prayer? Astrology? Politics? Magic? No. It will be science, medicine and technology. We don’t always know which bit of science will prove most useful, or which will generate the greatest benefits – be they societal or economic. But what history has taught us is that science and medicine has repeatedly provided solutions to problems in a way that other fields have not. As a scientist it is reassuring that governments understand that science generates wealth. But it is also alarming that they assume we can do it on demand and with limited investment. If I could, I probably wouldn’t be described as a scientist, I’d be described as a billionaire instead.
But I’m not. I’m a scientist, and I will have little influence on altering policy. As a recipient of funds from the research councils I am presumably now a wealth generation asset. So this got me thinking: How can someone like me, with interests in dynamical systems, generate wealth? How can I redefine myself as a wealth generation asset?
The first way could be to advise the government on effective ways to save money on containing diseases of wildlife and livestock. I could, for example, join a team of other experts to review data and report back that current policy is expensive and does not work. Oh! I did that. We pointed out that the badger culling policy didn’t appear to be a viable option to reduce TB in cattle. One way to save money – or at least to target it more effectively to solve the problem – would be to stop the cull. I guess saving money, or spending it in a different way, isn’t wealth generation.
So how else can I help with wealth generation? I guess one way would be to advise on how best to manage renewable resources, like fisheries, or pollinators, or even agricultural lands. Obviously this is not a new idea, but we could advise governments on what renewable yields might be, or how to improve soils, or crop yields. If we managed our resources in a renewable manner, could this not generate secure jobs and wealth? Alternatively the science could be ignored and targets could be set by debate among all invested parties. Perhaps the people that exploit the resources could contribute to setting management targets while ignoring the science? History has shown how this approach works, and has led to a phrase all ecologists know well – the tragedy of the commons. But the phrase doesn’t seem to have entered the lexicon of politics, so I fear this approach to wealth generation may fall on deaf ears.
I am interested in demography, and in predicting how population structure might change in the future. I have developed models that predict how the age-structure of populations changes in the short-to-medium term, and which factors drive changes in body size distributions. I have sometimes even coupled these models to economic models. Sadly I guess predicting the future age- or BMI-structure of the population of specific countries is once again not wealth generation, but instead it provides a tool to predict demands on pension funds or the National Health Service.
I do find it galling that within the corridors of power – and let me stress that this is not simply an issue with the current administration but is widespread among politicians across the globe – scientific advice is so often ignored yet science is relied upon to sort out so many issues. It seems a little contradictory to me. But I would like to help.
And then I had an idea. I suddenly realized that my skills in dynamic systems did offer an opportunity to generate some wealth. Where do I start? Well, there is something called the subprime mortgage market…. Maybe I should move into banking.
Senior Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology
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