Sir: Dr Fink is right that the UK bats well above its weight through curiosity-driven research (‘Back to basics’, 14 March). This forms the bedrock of scientific progress, but it is misleading to imply that ‘blue skies’ thinking and practical application are mutually incompatible. Should we not nurture both? In this way the UK will lead in discovery and exploitation for societal benefit through the earliest application of new ideas, preventing us from dropping the ball as we have in the past.
He is right that we should let scientists focus on delivering new science, but is it too much to spend a few weeks outlining forward plans every five years? Research grant writing is hard but energising work, allowing free and creative thinking before the longer process of implementation. Not all ideas lead to a Nobel prize, and having a low (~20 per cent) funding rate ensures the taxpayer only supports the very best science and the very best scientists.
I agree that the application process could be faster, but it is not fundamentally broken. Unlike in the US, most established researchers in the UK do receive regular funds to allow them to explore freely. If the government honours its commitment to redirect European-bound funds directly into UK research, we will be in a very strong position post-Brexit. A rich funding environment will continue to attract the brightest and the best into curiosity-driven and translational research, from our own universities, from Europe and beyond.
Professor of Neurology, University of Cambridge and Gonville and Caius College
Sir: We read that millions of the over-seventies are being advised to stay at home for four months and thereby be shielded from Covid-19 (‘Life in lockdown’, 14 March). This is to allow the elderly to live for as long as possible. Instead I prefer to live as full a life as possible. In 2006/07, my wife and I co-founded the Oxford Community Foodbank (CEF): each year we — and 30 elderly volunteers — feed thousands of Oxford’s poor. One of the consequences of a four-month self-isolation would be that the CEF would cease to operate. Since this work of caring gives meaning to our volunteers’ lives, this would be devastating to them. And as they are impossible to replace at short notice, the loss of service to the local needy would be catastrophic. This blight would be replicated in communities all over the UK.
I suggest that instead ministers should rely on the sound common sense and long experience of the over-seventies to take whatever steps they feel are appropriate to look after their own safety.
Sir: John Connolly was right on the money in his espousal of a free port for Grimsby (‘Free enterprise’, 14 March). After all, Ireland has clearly demonstrated that the only path to prosperity in modern Europe is to get your tax system right.
Might I suggest we go one step further and set up a Grimsby Freeport ship register, where British ships could be registered, free of the absurd tax and regulatory environment which reigns today. No sensible ship owner would register his ship anywhere other than Malta or Panama City now. Perhaps such a register might result in Britain once more becoming a maritime nation with British-flagged ships filling the world’s ports. Works for Valletta — why not for Grimsby?
New South Wales, Australia
Sir: Charles Moore is quite right to emphasise the importance of properly free-range chickens (Notes, 14 March). We have a small number of free-range hens which have access to our farmyard and garden, and their eggs are delicious. So is our young mutton, and a neighbour’s free-range pork. Many years ago, on a farm in South Africa, the owner told me that a bullock that had pulled a plough all its life tasted much better than one just grazing in a field. And in New Zealand it was interesting to see that sheep farmers kept some lambs for themselves, to grow into tasty hogget.
Ministers of science
Sir: I agree with Ross Clark that with a disease like Covid-19, the shortage of up-to-date peer-reviewed studies means it isn’t easy for scientists to accurately know what’s going on (‘How worried should we be?’, 14 March). It makes it even more difficult for scientifically illiterate ministers. Once this crisis is over we need to address the paucity of science-savvy members of parliament. The present cabinet has only two science graduates: Alok Sharma and Therese Coffey. It cannot instil confidence if our leaders do not have the wherewithal to understand science-based issues such as climate change, AI and pandemics.
Soap and songs
Sir: With regard to timing one’s handwashing (Letters, 14 March), I find two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’ tedious and ‘God Save the Queen’ doesn’t go down too well in my current domicile in Ireland. However as a scout leader of 30 years’ standing, I have found that the first verse of ‘Ging Gang Goolie’ works perfectly, taking exactly 20 seconds, I have trained my youngsters accordingly.
Sir: May I be the 1,000th person to point out that our dear Home Secretary is perfectly suited to our ‘punk rock government’ (Rod Liddle, 14 March) since (wait for it) ‘She’s so Priti, Priti vacant — and she don’t care!’ Apologies to John Lydon/Johnny Rotten.
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