Soaring ambitions or bunny-boxes?

03Sep11

Concorde, designed and built in Bristol (with some assistance from Johnny Frenchman, but let’s not talk about that) tends to be written off as a stupendous waste of taxpayers’ money. Only 20 aircraft were built and was only ever operated by the British and French flag carriers. The only people who could afford to travel on it were the super-rich. White elephant, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

A similar argument was made about NASA’s space programmes back in the 1960s and 70s. Why are we spending all this money sending men to the moon, or to muck about in an orbital laboratory when half the world’s population goes hungry?

As if it was a straightforward choice between space and food.

The Apollo programme, particularly, mobilised vast amounts of money, creativity and ingenuity for a project which fired the imaginations of the whole world. No, we didn’t just get Teflon from it. We got a thousand other things, the most important of all of them being the sort of giant forwards technological leap you only usually get from a world war. Without Apollo, without what scientists and engineers learned about everything from materials to project management, we’d probably still be waiting for the internet and mobile phones. Big, imaginative technological projects make people want to build stuff.

And Concorde? Concorde was our Apollo programme. It attracted some of the best talent in Britain and France to solve innumerable technical problems no-one had ever faced before.

Its legacy was a huge fund of technical and scientific breakthroughs and know-how which stood Britain – and Bristol – in good stead ever since. This knowledge, in its turn, was founded on previous projects – Britannia, Brabazon, Blenheim and all the way back to the first Bristol aircraft so carefully ripped off from a French design.

That same powerhouse of know-how turned out down the years to be capable of also producing everything from temporary pre-fab houses which were still lived in 60 years later, to hugely successful spacecraft.

Bristol still has a successful aerospace industry. Anything which can survive three decades of government indifference to engineering in favour of allowing spivs to gamble other people’s money and calling it “wealth creation” isn’t just good, it’s the best in the world.

But BAe Systems’ announcement that they’re shutting down Filton Airfield next year means the slow death of Bristol’s aerospace with it, no matter what spin they come up with. The bean-counters have probably said there’s more money to be made by turning the runway into a housing development. (“Brabazon Close!” “Blenheim Avenue!” “Concorde Way!”)

But if you don’t have a bloody airfield, it stands to reason that sooner or later you don’t have a local aerospace industry. It’s that simple!

Until lately, this baleful development hasn’t caused much alarm in official circles. One suspects that letters and emails from constituents, as well as the Evening Post’s letters page, finally woke up a couple of somnolent politicians over the summer. So we’ve recently had statements from the Labour group Leader of BCC (calling on BAe Systems to re-think their plans as 30,000 jobs could be at stake) and from the leader of the LibDems on BCC calling on South Glos to make sure the area is used for job creation.

This, of course, is just ineffectual posturing by two politicians who know they’re powerless in the face of a powerful global company. These feeble efforts also (yet again) illustrate the insanity of a gerrymandered local government structure in which huge chunks of Bristol’s conurbation are run by neighbouring authorities, in this case South Gloucestershire. This cuts both ways of course; because most of the aerospace industry is actually in South Glos, it rarely enters the purview of Bristol council officials, even though it’s a hugely important part of the local economy.

The world needs engineering know-how now more than ever, and if Bristol really wants to be at the cutting edge of everything from aviation to wind and wave energy, you need things that soar, and you need to attract the brightest and best young talent. You need engineers, you need people who invent and make things that enable us to prosper. Or maybe just survive.

Because the alternative is that most of the brightest young minds you have, the ones with the firsts in physics and maths, end up going into the various forms of legalised theft known as “banking”.

The choice between a wrecked economy and soaring to the stars might seem  a no-brainer. Yet the decision turns in practice on little things like closing runways in order to build bunny-boxes.

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3 Responses to “Soaring ambitions or bunny-boxes?”

  1. 1 Art of the Impossible

    Beautifully put, but this isn’t just about Bristol, it’s about Britain.

    Apparently “a review concluded that it had no long-term economic prospects”, which about says it all.

    Never mind, the other half and i have a half-formed plot where us Brits are kept on as sort of museum pieces in a de-industrialised England when the debts are called in by the Chinese … like the woman in the Museum in “Color Purple” (?) We’ll have to ham it up a bit with straws in our mouths for the tourists, but hey, a job’s a job, we’ll have to be grateful.

  2. 2 thebristolblogger

    There’s always the chance that all those maths and physics firsts won’t be invited in to banking any more and might return to good old-fashioned rocket science.

    There’s an argument that says the whole of the banking crash can be traced to a paper – “On Default Correlation: A Copula Function Approach” by David X Li – that managed to price mortgage-based collateralised debt obligations that were “too complex to price”.

    After the paper was published in 2000, the market in mortage-based CDOs leapt from $275m a year in 2000 to about $4.7 trillion by 2006!

    Mathematicians tend to blame bankers for this saying they didn’t understand the maths. Although along with the bankers they made pot loads of money out of it first.

    One place to start, then, might be to give our scientists more of an education in elegance (Concorde) and awe (the Saturn V) and less of an education in the importance of making money.

  3. 3 Art of the Impossible

    There is also an argument put forward by Robert Harris that it was unemployed physicists who cooked up the whole CDO WMDs that have blown up in our faces now.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2043943/How-supercomputers-preying-human-fear-taking-worlds-stock-markets.html

    Devil, meet idle hands …


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