The Science is Vital demonstration and rally last Saturday, was the first time I have been at protest event surrounded by young people in white coats enthusiastically cheering about how vital science is to the future. Of course there were a lot of crusty, bespectacled, bearded ‘science’ types, but the presence of so many younger people and their passion was truly exciting.
The rally was very respectable but passionate. Of all the speakers, Colin Blakemore was the most poignant. His message was very simple but vital: society needs to invest in scientific research if it is to shape the unknown future. Unlike many of the other speakers, his defence of spending on science was not solely predicated on the economic benefits it might create for Britain in the future. He argued for the intrinsic value of knowledge and the human potential of solving problems we don’t even know exist yet.
This was refreshing and speaks to one of the key assumptions we have incorporated into Big Potatoes: The London manifesto for Innovation. While numerous speakers flattered the British scientific community (for punching above its weight), their arguments, which centred more on the economic value of science, began to worry me. The message promoted is that science is vital not because of its intrinsic value but because of its potential economic consequences.
While economic benefits are important, there is a problem with defending science in this way. What if research does not yield immediate economic returns? What if it takes decades before ‘useless’ research becomes relevant? But most importantly, if this is the criteria by which we judge the legitimacy of science we destroy the scientific method itself: scientific relevance cannot be stipulated at the outset.
The most worrying thing about the current debate is the defensive character of the scientific community. There is a palpable lack of confidence in justifying science in terms of its capacity to develop new knowledge as a noble goal in itself and as part of human-centred problem solving and the ability to control nature to reduce uncertainty. By constantly slipping back into justifying the pursuit of knowledge in narrow, immediate economic terms, the authority of knowledge is undermined.
A few examples of the problem
There are numerous examples of this problem. Take Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. The project justifies its existence (according to the website) by stressing that one of its byproducts may be new science ‘that can be applied almost immediately’. Does this mean that all that investment would have been wasted if the project does not deliver immediate benefits?
Take another example, the most significant development in UK biomedical science for a generation, the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. The aim of this project is :
‘to understand the basic biology underlying human health, finding ways to prevent and treat the most significant diseases affecting people today.’
While these goals can only be admired, a closer examination of the project reveals an unease about this mission. In their vision and strategy we find the following two points:
- It will nurture a culture in which clinical and commercial translation is valued as highly as discovery research.
- It will engage with the public to build strong relationships with local communities.
‘Commercial translation’ – making money – is ‘valued as highly as discovery research’? Can this really be true? Again, what if the research finds no applicability for the next 40 years? Does that mean UKCMRI has failed? And why build strong relationships with local communities? Is there some strong medical or research reason why UKCMRI wants to build strong relationships with the people of Camden? In fact so concerned is UKCMRI with justifying its role they promise to provide ‘community facilities’ as part of their community building exercise. Is UKCMRI going to be the UK’s premier medical research institute or a local community centre where the people of Camden can drop in for a hot cuppa?
The same unease about justifying the goals of a research project can be seen in another grand initiative undertaken by one of the UK’s top research Universities, University College London Research (UCL RESEARCH). In their research GRAND CHALLENGES which are indeed grand (Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing) they justify their ‘Expertise’ as follows:
We are world leaders across the breadth of academic disciplines – from neuroscience to urban planning, particle physics to health informatics and environmental law – and we have an ongoing commitment to innovation and relevance.
‘…an ongoing commitment to…relevance’? Albert Einstein would be turning in his grave at the thought of making relevance a commitment to solving grand scientific challenges. As he is famously purported to have said: ‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research’. But it seems that today the scientific community is uncomfortable with justifying its existence by insisting that research leads to the production of new knowledge which is different from the transfer or application of existing knowledge.
This reveals that the scientific community is uneasy with unpredictability (which ought to be its war cry). It is the fundamental unpredictability of research that nourishes experimentation, throws up new problems and opens fresh avenues of enquiry. As a result new knowledge creates not simply incremental or relevant or commercial advance but, in many cases, whole new industries.
When the scientific community feel it necessary to justify their existence on the pragmatic grounds of relevance or commercialism they shoot themselves in the foot and undermine science itself. The authority of science and scientific knowledge is undermined which can only result in an even greater demand for certainty in outcomes – an even faster move away from the pursuit of knowledge.
Science is vital, but this debate is even more so.