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  • Sir Kenneth Olisa


UK science agency must avoid the Babbage Curse

Like every citizen with any understanding of the wealth-creating power of scientific discovery, I enthusiastically welcome the UK government's intention to establish the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (“Scientific research agency to be launched”, Report, February 19) .

However, I strongly hope it doesn’t make the mistake of handing the leadership to “prominent, world-leading scientists”.

History shows us that while this country has long been in the vanguard of scientific discovery, we are usually to be found in the guards’ van of market exploitation.

Given the prominence of IT companies in the world’s prosperity rankings, the story of Charles Babbage provides salutary proof that innovation and exploitation are far from synonymous. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge was inarguably a prominent, world-leading scientist. His invention of the first programmable digital computer heralded the birth of a global industry, yet most of its economic impact has been felt far from our shores.

One can only hope that policymakers recognise the wisdom of another great scientist’s alleged dictum - that to repeat an experiment expecting a different outcome is unwise.

To defy the Babbage curse, Aria will need a leadership more closely aligned with the methods of Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial flair than Karl Popper’s empirical falsification.

Published on the Financial Times, 26th February 2021.

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