John Tyndall – the man who explained why the sky is blue – would be baffled by the idea of democratic discussion of the direction of research and innovation
John Tyndall – the 19th-century Irish scientist (c. 1822–93), not the 20th-century neo-Nazi – was the man who measured the absorption of heat by gases in the atmosphere, underpinning our modern understanding of climate change, meteorology and weather, and explained why the sky is blue (among much else). He was also scientific adviser to the Board of Trade from 1867 to 1883, so he knew a bit about the policy world. I have just completed his biography, the first substantive profile of him for more than 70 years. It has struck me how similar today’s big questions about the direction and funding of scientific research are to those of 150 years ago.
When Tyndall started his career, and became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1852, government expenditure on “basic science” was small. The Royal Society administered a government grant of £1,000 per annum, which could only be spent on apparatus. Even allowing for a factor of a hundred to give a modern equivalent, and the relatively simple and low-cost apparatus of the time, it is a negligible sum. When this grant was suddenly increased to £4,000 in 1876 there was a flurry of concern in the higher echelons of the Royal Society as to how they were going to manage the increase. Tyndall was a member of the government grant committee for many years. He received several hundred pounds from the fund over the years, at a time when the concept of a conflict of interest would not have occurred to anyone.