With the Canadian federal election in view, the science radio program Quirks and Quarks from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation held recently a debate of the representatives of the several political parties on their stand on science. The conservative representative maintained that science should be focused on creating products. The Liberal, Green and NDP representatives maintained that the government should not decide which science is important and complained that the basic research in the country is at starvation levels. These two views exist and clash in every western country.

In scientific circles we hear more and more frequently the claim that society is now demanding from science not only to discover but to implement. According to this claim, people in the streets are asking that scientific results have a more applied character, that they result in immediate benefits for society.

I do not think that science has a bad track record of producing tangible socio-economic benefits. Indeed, science is one of the pillars of western civilization, with two inseparable aspects: the tenet that the universe is rational and we can understand how it operates, which is the driving force of science, and the operational aspect of putting this knowledge to work for us. One simple look around should convince us that science is fulfilling very well this second part of the plan. Why is it then necessary to change strategies in order to improve the practical outcome of science? And who are those asking for a change in strategy?

‘Useless science’

The claim that science needs to focus more on societal needs originates from politicians and is disseminated by intermediate bodies between politicians and scientific institutions such as national or regional funding agencies. Such a claim will obviously be supported by any person who is not acquainted with science. It seems to make perfect sense: let us produce more of the useful science and leave out more of the “useless science”.

The problem is that this argument is totally flawed. There is no useful and useless science. There is simply science, and parts of it are made practically useful as science progresses. Any bit of “useful science” has behind it a long history of “useless science” without which it would have never come to be. Particularly, the science that has really revolutionized large areas of our knowledge and resulted later on in huge socio-economic benefits has been the most abstract and “useless” at the time of its development, precisely because it was exploring completely new fields or using totally new ideas or paradigms. The digital era is all about quantum mechanics and obscure mathematics. 

The case for more applied science is then a flawed argument, created by politicians and directed to the public for political reasons. It is argued that more focus on applied science does not need to detract from basic science, but this is not the case because the national budgets for science are fixed within narrow limits and giving more money to one type of science means necessarily giving less to the other. In the UK we have witnessed an obvious increase of funding for programmes oriented to specific targets and a decrease of funds reserved for basic research designed by the scientist.

Scientists as salesmen

This politically motivated move assigns new tasks to the scientist. Before, scientists were required to have ideas that could be translated into projects of sufficient insight to convince a panel of colleagues and the funding agency that they were worth funding. Next, scientists were required to carry out the projects effectively and finally to publish the results with a sufficiently insightful interpretation, all of which was again reviewed by colleagues. Now, besides all that, scientists are required to maintain a constant dialogue with industry, engage with interested parties, sell their ideas to them and be able to implement the results of their studies successfully. This does not seem reasonable or even practicable. Western society owns much of its success to division of labour and specialization. The expectation from a football (soccer) player is that he plays with dexterity and effectiveness. No one suggests that he should also be his own physical trainer, doctor, financial manager and contribute to managing the team. By the same token, why should be required from scientists to be also salesmen, engineers and public relations officers?

If scientists have to be a Jack of all trades, well then, we know what follows. Science requires a specific mindset and training, different from other trades. It also requires a specific environment where ideas can ripen and come to fruition, producing novel and penetrating insights about nature. It requires an atmosphere of independence so that the natural world can be investigated without hindrance or bias from ideology or factual powers. We know the futility of science carried out under the tutelage of political or ideological motivations in the disappeared USSR and elsewhere. In democratic western society scientific policies can also be dictated by political interest and force scientific activity into ineffectual roads.

Did I mention climate change?

In the UK, national funding agencies have been implementing for the last 15 years an ever increasing management and steering of the funding programmes, focusing money on narrower areas. A recent study using impact cases produced by Earth Sciences university departments found that among the few most frequent words used in these reports were “climate” and “change”. Earth Scientists know that this does not mean a realization of the importance of the topic by the scientists, rather it means that the shift to fund climate change studies disproportionately drove researchers to make their science appear as relevant to the topic. The joke ran for years among us: whatever your research topic is, for any chance of getting funded make sure that you mention climate change in your application.

Science in western countries is being swallowed progressively by this artificial and politically driven approach. By far the largest portion of the European Communitiy research money goes to programmes inspired by the motto “science for business”. Research is getting more expensive, because there is an army of intermediaries between the politicians and the scientists who busy themselves managing, organizing yet more meetings, “facilitating” contacts between scientists and with stakeholders, and actually narrowing the real opportunities for the greatest majority of scientists to obtain funds, while an ever smaller number of politically-oriented groups receive a larger slice. The rat race for money does not foster genuine applied science or discovery oriented towards specific problems; rather it is generating a sort of mimetized science: research aiming at some objective A is declared to aim at some other objective B which happens to be fashionable or politically adequate.

As the situation develops one wonders, are we producing more data and ideas applicable in the short term than 20 years ago? Who is seeing to it that this new approach is producing the desired results? The funding agencies are not interested in an objective monitoring because the present situation gives them greater control and higher profile. In any case, they are an interested party and should not be relied on for this task.

For the time being we are left drifting into the Relevant Science Wonderland, ever increasing the load on the scientists and making them use a tremendous amount of time on tasks that are unrelated to science. More wisely, we do not require this from footballers. Some of them have impressive skills other than football. For example, some players have written their own autobiographies. But we keep our focus and ask of them just to be good at playing. Something tells us that this is the way to get the best football.

Javier Cuadros is an Earth scientist working in London.