Scientific progress and emerging markets give us all hope

Allister Heath
I AM as guilty as anybody of excessive gloominess. To be fair, I have an excuse: the government is floundering; Abu Qatada is making a mockery of Britain; the UK economy is stagnant; unemployment is elevated; taxes are rising; the nanny state is gaining ground; the Eurozone faces years of misery and eventual collapse; China is nursing the mother of all bubbles; the US public finances are horrendous; and Iran wants to build nukes.

But this is Friday, and it would be remiss of me not to point out the good news. There is lots of it – especially if we focus not just on the UK but on humanity as a whole.

The first is scientific progress. Take a marvellous story that broke yesterday: scientists at University College London’s Institute of Opthalmology have successfully cured blind mice, allowing them to see again. This major breakthrough, as reported by Nature, involved researchers transplanting immature light-sensitive photoreceptors into blind mice; within weeks, the implants integrated themselves and the mice were able to see again. One day, hopefully in no more than a couple of decades’ time, blind humans may also be cured. Even though progress can feel excruciatingly slow, there are lots more exciting developments to come from medical science which will transform the quality of life of humanity as the 21st century progresses. By 2100, assuming the world doesn’t self-destruct through nuclear war or by adopting communism or another similarly destructive collectivist ideology, it may be possible to regrow damaged limbs or body parts. Even today, this is no longer in the realm of science-fiction.

It is probably true, as many have argued, that the rate of growth of scientific innovation and technological progress has floundered – unsurprisingly so, as the leap from having to send couriers on horse back to the telegraph and then the telephone is far greater than the shift from land lines to mobiles, let alone the move from voice mobiles to smartphones. But there are still huge leaps forward to be had. As Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist, an excellent book and blog, likes to remind us, just 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10m humans. Today, the world population is over 6bn, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, sheltered, entertained and protected against disease. As Ridley puts it, “the availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout.”

It is not just about inventing new things – it is also about spreading progress. Innovations that were revolutionary 15 years ago but that rich folk in the West now take for granted are still massively improving well-being all over the world. More people than ever are able to afford such radically liberating technologies: tens of millions of Africans are now able to communicate and access financial and other services thanks to mobile phones.

The world – unlike the UK – is not in stagnation. Dozens of emerging economies are booming. What the UK needs is to grab a bit of this energy, bottle it and force everybody who matters to drink some of it. It is time to grasp the immense opportunities available at home and abroad – and to liberate our entrepreneurs to allow them to embrace them and create growth, jobs and wealth for millions. Science, capitalism and globalisation are what will rescue us.