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Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation

Publication date: Apr 7, 2008 12:17:47 PM

"Well-intentioned changes to science funding have created lumbering bureaucracies to ensure compliance, and they threaten the very future of civilization", says UCL Earth Sciences Visiting Professor Don Braben in his new book ‘Scientific Freedom: The elixir of civilisation.’ "The benefits of 20th century science were immense. Such unpredicted discoveries as lasers, nuclear power, computers, and a host of medical diagnostics transformed our lives. However, the rules have changed. Despite the fact that our understanding in many fields is poor or non-existent, scientists must concentrate on making their proposals look attractive to a funding agency. They must identify users and beneficiaries in advance. They cannot do anything without a committee’s approval."

"Before about 1970, scientists were relatively free to do as they pleased," argues Braben. "Now they must persuade their peers that their work is worth doing (peer preview). Such 20th century scientists as Planck, Einstein, Rutherford, Fleming, Avery, Perutz, Franklin, Crick and Watson, Townes, McClintock, Black, Brenner, and perhaps 300 others of similar calibre that together comprise what I call the Planck Club, transformed our prospects. Modern civilization is indeed built on their great discoveries. However, the new rules have made it nearly impossible for their would-be successors to make the unpredictable discoveries that will boost economic growth and prosperity in the 21st century. We are heading for stagnation."

Braben urges that we must begin to create a 21st century Planck Club. That can only be done by providing freedom to the very few scientists who must have it. His Venture Research initiative, sponsored by BP in the 1980s, pioneered efficient new ways of selecting would-be Planck-Club members without using peer preview. The initiative was very successful, despite every project except one having been rejected by peer preview. The initiative ended in 1990 only because it was not compatible with BP’s new "core-business" strategy.

Nowadays, policy is usually about priorities. What are the best objectives? How should limited resources be divided between, say, health, environment, or defence? How can one spin the arguments by which one’s favourite field might benefit? Horse trading and vested interests play major roles, and compromise decides the outcomes. Braben acknowledges that today’s technologies have transformed communication, leisure, travel, and many other aspects of modern life. However, they tend to be short lived and derivative on Planck-Club discoveries made decades ago. We are living off the seed corn.

His diagnosis is that major-league science - intense, dispassionate studies of profound and difficult problems - cannot tolerate compromise. If Planck-Club members had had to contend with today’s rules, they would not have got started. No one predicted their great discoveries, they challenged what we thought we knew, and indeed, they could not have been planned. Yet life without them would probably be intolerable.

Braben calls on governments or funding agencies to create Venture (or Transformative) Research initiatives as soon as possible. The US National Science Board agrees, and has suggested that a Transformative Research initiative should be set up. (Braben was a member of its Task Force.) However, the interests vested in the status quo can be powerful, so Braben advocates collaborative ventures between private investors and funding agencies. Flexibility in finance, and efficient access to extensive academic infrastructures could be a powerful combination.

Braben covers much more ground than research. University autonomy is under serious threat and he outlines how that threat might be resisted. Industry concentrates too much on its core businesses – a sure recipe for stagnation. He introduces the formidable Damocles Zone.

Braben concludes: “All too often, understanding is being sacrificed in favour of tangible objectives. Understanding is, of course, a wholly abstract concept. I do not know of any civilization that collapsed because it had too much, whereas all too many failed because they clamped down on its supply. Our future is precariously balanced. Our burgeoning problems mean that we have a tiger by the tail, and survival may depend on having all the understanding, flexibility, and audacity we can get. We may learn new tricks thereby, and might even learn to tame the tiger. Many civilizations have eventually ended in collapse but it is not inevitable. Thanks to the elixir that comes from scientific freedom, we can postpone it indefinitely if we appreciate the value of our most precious asset.”