Requiem for Science?

I was once a member of a committee whose purpose was to hire a new colleague in our university department. Unimpressed with one of the candidates who claimed he was a ‘trouble-shooter’, the head of the committee, a distinguished scholar, said something I will remember for long. He said “a scientist is not someone who solves problems but who knows how to problematise things”.

I was impressed. Really? Not solve problems but to create more of them? Is that why I am in this ‘business’? But as the time passes and I gain more experience, I see merit in his words. It is the ability to look at an issue from various angles that makes good science, at least social science. It is the ability to be curious and not only achievement-oriented that inspires others. The ability to share enthusiasm and excitement with others is often contagious. These all make science intrinsically valuable, not only because it is instrumental to solving problems of a society.

Recently, I read an article on game theory from one of the founding fathers of the discipline — Ariel Rubinstein. Discussing game theory, Rubinstein also touches on the issue of the role of science in society. This is what he writes:

“The search for the practical meaning of game theory derives from the perception that academic teaching and research directly benefit society. This is not my worldview. Research universities, particularly in the fields of the humanities and social sciences, are part of a cultural fabric. Culture is gauged by how interesting and challenging it is, and not by the benefit it brings.”

and furthermore…

“If someone also finds a practical use for game theory, that would be great. But in my view, universities are supposed to be “God’s little acre,” where society fosters what is interesting, intriguing, aesthetic and intellectually challenging, and not necessarily what is directly beneficial.”

Ah, the “God’s little acre’! How well said and how much to the point! Unfortunately, this view is getting less and less popular. Funders want to see how a certain research project is practical; paper reviewers often ask authors for ‘policy relevance’, department evaluations assess ‘societal impact’ measured in number of appearance in media (how absurd!). And all more or less experienced scientists invent ways to pay lip service to that, appear in media, invent impacts on society that do not always exist and try and make their work catchier, sexier, more ‘policy-relevant’. And less aesthetic, less intrinsically motivated, less ‘holy’.

Dear professors and principal investigators, if you want to make science practical, make it through posing interesting and useful questions where possible. But if you want to keep motivated people to research things, you won’t get away just paying them mere academic salaries and telling them what to research guided by practical value. Talent does not come to academia for money or for status. It comes because it wants to research what it likes, finds pleasing, interesting, satisfying. And once you insist on practical value of something — you drive the motivation down to abyss. Take note of that, dear managers, and make change before you are left with opaque, disinterested and corrupt members of a group who are there just to make a living, not to engage with science. And who will see no difference between academic and any other office job…

Farhad

A curious mind traveling the world and reflecting on everything.

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