Without him, our understanding of the world would be completely different – but world renowned physicist and author Stephen Hawking says that he fears another gifted academic with a condition like his would not be able to flourish in today’s tough economic times.
The 73-year-old – Britain’s highest profile scientist who found fame with a new audience following the release of award winning film The Theory Of Everything – expressed the concerns at an event to celebrate his 50th year as a fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College.
Hawking suffers from motor neuron disease, a neurological disorder which affects motor neurons, which control muscle activity including speaking, walking, swallowing and general movement of the body. As a result, Hawking has been in a wheelchair since the late 1960s, and gradually lost the ability to communicate using speech, instead using a computer programme which turns movements from his cheek muscles into words.
He praised his former college, the University of Cambridge, for supporting him throughout the progression of his disease, allowing him to focus on his ground-breaking work.
But, speaking before an invited audience at the college, he added: “I wonder whether a young ambitious academic, with my kind of severe condition now, would find the same generosity and support in much of higher education.
“Even with the best goodwill, would the money still be there? I fear not.”
Although Hawking did not elaborate on his comments, he has previously raised concerns about cuts to Government funding for research budgets.
Seven years ago he warned £80 million of grant cuts threatened Britain’s international standing in the scientific community, saying: “These grants are the lifeblood of our research effort; cutting them will hurt young researchers and cause enormous damage both to British science and to our international reputation.”
His comments come at a time when universities continue to lobby for sufficient resources.
Professor Hawking is not alone in his concerns. Earlier this month Wendy Platt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents the leading research universities, said: “The new Government must ensure our universities have sufficient funding to carry out cutting-edge research and provide excellent teaching to students.”
Hawking was speaking to guests of college benefactors. TV star Carol Vorderman, whose daughter studied at the college, and rock star Brian Adams, whose wife has links to it, were in the audience.
He described Gonville and Caius as his “academic home”. Speaking of his election to a fellowship in 1965, he added: “That fellowship was a turning point in my life, as the college made sure I could continue my research, despite my increasing disability.”
In a reference to an incident which will be familiar to fans of last year’s hit film, he told how the college chartered a plane to fly him back to the UK after he became ill in Switzerland in the 1980s and doctors asked his wife, Jane, whether life support should be terminated.
“I was then in Addenbrookes Hospital for quite a time, unable to speak or hold anything,” he said.
“During that time my students participated in a rota to keep my mind occupied by reading to me, I was even able to laugh at the funny bits.”
He also explained how part of the college’s West Road site had been adapted to house him and his family – this was where he went on to write his first book, A Brief History Of Time.
Hawking said: “Caius gave me a home, literally and figuratively, and is a constant thread running through my life.”
The college’s master, Alan Fersht, said in his speech that he was confident the college would offer similar support to modern day academics.
Sir Alan added: “Stephen questioned whether a young academic in his condition would get the same level of support today? For Caius at least, I can say emphatically ‘yes’. The fellowship is a family, just as our students, our staff and our alumni are all parts of the Caian family.”
He continued: “In 1965, none of us dreamt that we would be here, 50 years on, to celebrate this day. I say none, but I suspect I actually mean ‘all, but one’.”