It was a great pleasure to see Yarnton Manor coming out in force yesterday to support their classmate Andrew Asseily, who was competing in the third and final Great ORA Debate of the summer. The motion under consideration: “Scientific Research Must Always Have a Commercial Application”. Andrew went up against three formidable opponents in Cong Minh Nguyen of Balliol, Gleb Ivanov of Queen’s, and Laura Jane Baxter of St Catz. And for added pressure, or perhaps inspiration, the four student speakers were joined by a scientist who is just about as prominent in his field as it is possible to get: Professor Michael Duff, a theoretical physicist and Professor Emeritus at Imperial College London, whose research focuses on supergravity, string theory and m-theory. Professor Duff was this year’s recipient of the Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his contribution to the field of theoretical physics.
To kick off proceedings, Programme Director in St Peter’s College Bob Barnes introduced each speaker in turn, allowing time for rapturous applause and some waving of banners. Then, Professor Duff took the podium to offer an introduction to the topic from a place of vast experience, deep knowledge, and profound commitment. He treated the issue even-handedly, citing the ground-breaking research and discoveries of Michael Faraday and Alexander Fleming―it certainly cannot be denied that induction and penicillin have enjoyed immense commercial success. Duff was keen to point out that the most influential and transformative discoveries have been the result of basic research meeting serendipity: think Alexander Fleming returning to his lab after a month’s holiday to discover penicillin growing in an abandoned petri dish. After this introduction, Duff ceded the floor to our first speaker, and Yarnton contender, Andrew, who spoke in support of the motion.
Andrew’s argument was a simple one, based in economic realism: in a world of scarce resources, Andrew argued, we need to find a way of prioritising what we fund. In the first instance, he went on, we should put commercially-viable research ahead of other kinds, with a view to channelling the proceeds towards addressing issues such as cancer and global health.
Cong Minh of Balliol spoke next, biting back against the motion: “Commercialism,” he asserted, “is the enemy of scientific creativity and innovation.” He warned that leaving science to business is leaving it to business’ own self-interests―and as is customary in any debate on current issues, Cong Minh invoked the spectre of President Trump, reminding the audience just how bad business can be.
Next up to the podium to defend the motion was Gleb, who made the very straightforward argument that good research and commercial success always go together anyway, framing the motion as something of a non-issue.
Finally, Laura Jane stepped up and asked the audience to think of Richard. Richard is a child who conducts scientific experiments, as children do, in the spirit of play and exploration: the motion, Laura asserted, presents an obliteration of this creative curiosity in research, and would lead to a fundamental shift for the worse in what science means and can contribute to society at all levels. Laura also questioned how the motion would work in practice: “How can we assess research for its commercial application before it’s even been done?”
After some fierce rebuttals―which involved some deep dives into the inner workings of our very own NHS―Professor Duff took to the podium again to commend the students for their oratorical skill and mental agility, and to announce the winner. The top spot went to Laura Jane, but all students were presented with a handshake and a prize from Professor Duff.
The display of excellence did not end there: on returning to Yarnton Manor after the debate, students were treated to a vast range of talents (some rather peculiar) in ORA’s Got Talent in the Manor marquee.