What do we want from science?
A Battle in Print by Thomas Deichmann, editor, Novo magazine
In June 2006, Annette Schavan, German minister for education and research, launched an initiative called ‘Research Union Economy-Science’. The main aim of the project is to make sure that research can be ‘transformed quickly and effectively into good products’. In addition, Schavan had announced some weeks earlier an extra investment of six billion euros for research and development (R&D) projects with the target of creating a new dynamic for the German economy and the labour market.
Today such ideas are common sense across the globe. They seem to offer a clear and convincing answer to the question of what society wants from science. Accordingly, Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for science and research, begins answering the question ‘Why European research?’ thus: ‘New ideas and innovations will help create new jobs, will help in finding new methods of protecting our environment, ensuring safer food and medicines, safer and sustainable energy resources etc, etc.’
Potocnik’s ‘etc, etc’ is symptomatic. It hints at the fact that there is a lack of clarity and priority when it comes to discussing the nature and purpose of science. His politically correct shopping list of wishful outcomes of European research also illustrates how science has been colonised by politicians who either try to be popular by using buzzwords like ‘safety’ and ‘sustainability’ wherever they can make a statement, or to reach short-term economic goals by changing the frame in which the scientific community is operating.
Without any doubt the burden on scientists and their organisations has increased steadily in recent years as a result of this. ‘Modern’ universities today have stopped being free and open places for intellectual and scientific experimentation. Instead they are forced to transform into profit centres, competing like companies in the education market. Their task has, at least in
At the same time, financial support for scientific research from the European Union or national governments is often linked to questions like: ‘How many work places will the project potentially deliver? How fast will it produce commodities to regenerate the investment?’ Numerous R&D ideas have been cancelled because the proposers were honest and unable to explain when and what kind of product or service they would deliver. Basic research in quantum mechanics or other ‘exotic’ disciplines has adopted a science fiction appearance in the public mind, as though they involve strange experiments by eccentric guys in laboratories without any vision or value.
The current discussions about the purpose of science don’t just have theoretical implications. The new instrumentalising approach instead determines practically how much we spend on what kind of ideas. Finally, it lowers our horizons and expectations about what science delivers. The question ‘What is science for?’ alone implies an insecurity about science’s purpose in society. The way it is discussed suggests that it is just another tool, which we can use, direct or temporarily hold back according to what is perceived as adequate at the time we are living. The relationship between society and science has obviously been readjusted. Science has become just one more ‘reform tool’ to realise targets, which we can clearly foresee, calculate and control. In this respect, science has been devalued and dethroned. It has lost its unique role for the human species in delivering knowledge to transform and develop our status on planet earth. Science has become an option to like or dislike in a situation where other aspects are as important.
Of course there is always potential to improve the way society organises R&D, education and the transformation of knowledge into products. From time to time it can even be helpful to shake up bureaucracies. But we should be clear that the new approach towards science we have recently witnessed is not primarily driven by such a positive agenda. Instead, this trend is an indication of a lack of orientation and the loss of valuable certainties about the role of science for shaping our future. It is part of a wider retreat from reason in society which the political elites are falsely presenting as modern and future-oriented.
Many commentators also see this new ‘science politics’ as a liberating step forward. Some go further in the dethroning process. Instead of ‘blindly believing’ in research, in strict methodology and technological progress, and pumping money into the huge science apparatus, these advocates argue that human beings are much more advanced and mature to choose: no blue print for plant scientists who genetically modify our crops and food, no trust in nano technologists and nuclear power experts dreaming about new energy supply systems. More scope instead for subjective, immeasurable ‘knowledge’ in medicine and agriculture, or for subsidies for political gain without a clear cut rational or even economic justification – like the investments of Germany into Middle Ages technologies like windmills or equipment to use excrement gas as ‘modern’ suppliers of electricity.
Following these discussions on science another important feature becomes obvious. The application of, and the confidence in, progress in science and engineering have been redefined widely as ‘risky operations’. Therefore, society is reminded to firmly control scientific research. This zeitgeist view is retranslated into a politics of regulation. The creation of new regulation itself reinforces the perception of increased danger, and as a result society becomes more and more risk obsessed. It has lost the idea that the century we are living in is no more than a tiny episode in the four-and-a-half-billion-year-long existence of our planet. Society has obviously forgotten the meaning of the expression homo sapiens (knowing human) as a description of the only species on earth consciously able to accumulate and develop knowledge, to shape nature for its own interests.
Instead, society seems paralysed in front of an apparently more and more dangerous status quo and has also become blind to the remaining big scientific projects in Europe, like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the construction of which started in
It is time to break out of this impasse and fight the zeitgeist prophets without concession for a new Enlightenment consensus. One starting point is to answer the question what society should want from science with a clear cut: ‘Nothing which is immediately measurable in economic other practical terms’. All political attempts to link scientific research and education with jobs or surplus creation should be rejected when entering the discussion. The scientific community is in a position to set its own agenda – of course in an open dialogue with society and not sitting in an ivory tower.
As Hubert Markl, biologist, foreign member of the Royal Society in London and former president of the Max Planck Society in Germany, put it recently: ‘Research is the wild west of exploration,’ and, borrowing a definition from the German philosopher Jürgen Mittelstraß, he added: ‘Science is a method for understanding life and the world – a method which gives rise to well-grounded knowledge’.
To develop such ‘well-grounded knowledge,’ research and science is dependant on far-reaching freedoms – not only from censorship, but also from any kind of external rules and instructions linked to whatever interests. Research is the way to create scientific knowledge. It needs free and undisciplined thinkers who are able to raise questions which have not been thought of before. According to Markl, the scientific community also needs ‘the unrestricted freedom to fail, to err and sometimes to go right off the track’.
Science is not at all about delivering products and services for a European ‘five year plan’ – where such an approach can end we have seen in the Soviet Union. Science is instead based upon premises that ensure its permanent and infinite progress. It presupposes that the world is principally structured according to laws, that it can be explained in these terms and that only natural explanations are acceptable. If there is something strict, straight and disciplined in the scientific world, then it is not research or thinking, but the scientific methodology as the key instrument for filtering out the ‘well-grounded knowledge’ from research projects around the globe.
To recall such certainties it is worth from time to time reading biographies of the geniuses, big and small, of the past and today. They give clear answers to the question of how society should approach science in order to realise the potential which is embedded in the brain of the knowing human. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the most important German writer of the Enlightenment, noted: ‘The struggle for the truth is more valuable than its possession’. And Albert Einstein argued: ‘Science is a wonderful thing, if you don’t need to earn your living with it. One should earn his living with a job, from which you know, you can carry it out’. Thanks to such an Enlightenment spirit, which today is under threat, we are currently in a far better situation to give science much more scope for free research and experimentation than we were fifty or a hundred years ago. We should take the ‘luxury risk’ to go for it and reach for new stars. By allowing this, society will again be able to develop new visionary and exciting ideas for a better future.
Thomas Deichmann, Dipl.-Ing., is editor of Novo magazine (http://www.novo-magazin.de/), and also a freelance writer and lecturer. He has a special interest in biotechnology and the relationship between science, society and politics.
date created:28/6/2006 12:53:08
last updated:29/9/2006 12:37:32