Can science get real about the economic crisis?

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.


About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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4 Responses to Can science get real about the economic crisis?

  1. Pingback: Real and False Economy | Reciprocal Space

  2. rpg says:

    Actually, we at Science is Vital have been talking with government about how to forge better links with industry. Unfortunately, because of the Haldane Principle, such change is likely to have to come from within academia–the funding councils and the University steering committees and what have you. They’re actually more difficult to engage with, although we’d happily try to.

  3. Pingback: Scientists, the economic crisis, and special interest strategies « Praj's Blog

  4. Tim Johnson says:

    The subject that came “top” in RAE2008 was Economics and the most research submitted was in “Business and management studies” ( That is, in the lead up to the financial crisis, British economists felt that British economics was pretty “excellent”. How ironic, so ironic that even HM the Queen asked the question why was the crisis had not been predicted (i.e. I can’t think of a better argument for scientists to wake up to the reality of what is happening out there and John Kay uses this is the introduction of his criticism of the state of economics (

    I have a hunch that the impact that scientists had in winning the Second World War has set the tone for science in the last seventy years. In particular the success of mathematicians converting apparently random streams of numbers into a coherent message has been the template for understanding economics: discover the right algorithm and order will come out of chaos. My view is that this neglects the difficult fact that the world is fundamentally, or effectively, random and as such, a different approach is needed. The problem is that there is such inertia in western science that it will change slowly, in the meantime it will be overhauled by less constrained scientists from emerging economies and our grandchildren will be migrating to China and India to work in the service industries.

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