A lovely piece by Colin Macilwain in Nature on why science hasn’t adapted to the economic crisis. If you believe, and it is increasingly hard not to, that the world’s economies are suffering from their greatest depression for at least 70 years, then every sector, every institution should have a responsibility to ask what they are going to do about it.
Much of the rhetoric of the scientific community has been about protecting its short-term health when public funding is under attack on all fronts. This was the correct tactic, but there has been little strategy. The promise offered by National Academies, by Universities, by research funders and by scientists themselves in groups like Science is Vital was that science would deliver long-term prosperity at a time when other sources looked bankrupt. But the assumptions about how science would deliver for the economy have not really changed since the 1940s. Science, the argument goes, works best when it is unfettered, so politicians should invest in serendipity.
Governments around the world have tried to squeeze more impact from scientific research (see this nice piece by @stephen_curry). Scientists have proven stubbornly resistant even to these rather marginal initiatives at a time when they should have been seized the agenda for their own. But even these moves have left the science itself largely unquestioned. Now, surely, is the time to ask the science policy questions that are so important but rarely get asked – What science do we need and why? Who should benefit? Who should decide? – and leave open the possibility that the answers might call for a radical redesign of the scientific enterprise. Perhaps we must rely on the arrival of new scientific powers to shake the incumbents into something new. Macilwain quotes Princess Sumaya of Jordan, gloriously unencumbered by democracy, but utterly correct: “We must ask ourselves why so much scientific research is driven by the consumer needs of a tiny elite… We’re being naive if we envisage business-as-usual for science in the new century.”
On that note, the ICSU initiative that Macilwain points to sounds interesting. I can’t find much info about it online, though.