Bernard Lovell

Andrew Hill

Obituaries of Sir Bernard Lovell, the driving force behind the UK’s Jodrell Bank radio-telescope, are a reminder of the risks of allowing short-term budget control to get in the way of long-term vision. As my colleague Clive Cookson wrote in the FT:

The project, funded by the government and Nuffield Foundation, ran far over budget and well behind schedule but Sir Bernard’s persuasive powers saw it through to completion.

The Telegraph’s obituary explains that the “building work was plagued by strikes, bureaucratic delays, delivery failures and escalating raw material costs”.

Following a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee investigation, Lovell faced a £1m lawsuit from his own engineer, with the threat of imprisonment if he couldn’t pay. As he explained in a fascinating video interview in 2007, the misunderstandings and legal battles put him under enormous stress. The use of the telescope to detect and track the recently launched Soviet Sputnik had underlined the national importance of the project, ensuring its future. But Lovell recalled:

Those years, particularly 1958, which should have been years of great, great, great relief and pleasure, with the telescope working and all the press in favour, were years of great depression and anxiety.