The European Research Council (ERC) is perhaps the biggest success in the recent history of the European Framework Programme and takes up a sizable portion of the Horizon2020 budget. But is the curiosity driven research that the ERC supports actually a really bad idea; a “beautiful lie” that shelters research from public accountability without delivering the breakthrough insights that will lead to new innovations that it promises?

Got your attention? I thought so.

Professor Daniel Sarewitz certainly got my attention when I read his lengthy essay Saving science  a month ago. Over the next couple of weeks I will write a blog post addressing different aspects of the merits of curiosity driven vs mission driven research (and whatever lies in between). I will take Sarewitz’ paper as my point of departure, but use it to reflect on the state of the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon2020.

The pride of modernity has lost its mojo

Science is in deep trouble. It is “Trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society. (p.6)

That is the essence of Sarewitz’ diagnosis, but how did the patient end up in such a wrecked state of affairs?

The beautiful lie

Sarewitz blames Vannevar Bush. An icons of postwar american research policy, Vannevar Bush was a driving force in US research during the second world war where he headed the US Office of Research and Development that initiated, among other things, the Manhattan Project. In 1945 he authored a report to the president titled Science – the Endless Frontier in which he promoted the idea of research as “the free play of intellects….dictated by their curiosity”. This is what Sarewitz calls the beautiful lie that has led our day scientific community into the self-destructive vortex.

[The beautiful lie] provided a politically brilliant rationale for public spending with little public accountability. Politicians delivered taxpayer funding to scientists, but only scientists could evaluate the research they were doing. Outside efforts to guide the course of science would only interfere with its free and unpredictable advance. (p.7)

The free play of intellects has delivered magnificent insights that “heighten our sense of wonder about the universe and about ourselves” (Saving science p.8) – that much is Sarewitz willing to admit. He denies, however, that curiosity driven research has also delivered new innovations that it has otherwise been credited with and which Vannevar Bush foresaw: Digital computers, jet aircrafts, laters, GPS….

It was the DOD who did it

These innovations was created not by the free play of intellects, but instead by the massive investments into research by the Department of Defence (DOD). The DOD achieved this by posing specific challenges and providing the framework to meet these challenges through advancements in fundamental knowledge as well as technical know-how. “DOD’s needs provided not just investments in but also a powerful focus for advances in basic research…” (p.9).

Instead of the DODs focus and investment, what we have today is a scientific culture in decay, and Vannevar is to blame because his “beautiful lie has led to institutional cultures organized and incentivized around pursuing more knowledge, not solving problems.”

Science is in a pincer grip, squeezed between revelations that entire areas of scientific enquiry are no good, and the willy-nilly production of unverifiable knowledge relevant to the unanswerable questions of trans-science…..the boundary between the objective truth and subjective belief appears, gradually and terrifyingly, to be dissolved. (p.33)

Did anyone say  post-factual society?

(By the way, Saving Science could also be read as an appendix to Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay where he chronicles the establishment and the decay of political systems; especially the chapter 11 on rise and decay of the U.S Forest Service bears an interesting comparison. Anyway, back to the topic….)

Three factors in the decay of science

Sarewitz outlines three aspects of modern science that in different ways embody this decay: the peer review publication system, trans-science and big data.

The malaise of the peer reviewed system is by now widely discussed: millions of papers publishing results that often cannot be reproduced. Sarewitz gives it a full swing here:

Academic science, especially, has become an onanistic enterprise worthy of Swift or Kafka.(p.18)

Exclamation point!

Add to this the trend towards what Sarewitz, following Alvin Weinberg, called Trans-science. Trans-science arises when society calls upon science to understand and address the complex problems of modernity but such problems hang on the answer to questions “that can be asked by science and yet which cannot be answered by science” (Weinberg 1972 qouted from Saving Science p. 25).

Examples of trans-science includes climate change models, economy, and health questions such as why obesity is rising in America.These are questions where the possible causes of an outcome are simply too numerous to enable scientific certainty in the answers provided, Sarewitz says.

A third symptom of the decay is Big Data which is “casting science into a sea of data with few constraints on where it might drift”. Like trans-science, big data is building its alleged scientific evidence on data material of such quantities that the possible causes of outcomes are to numerous.

They way out is for scientist to commit itself to selfless honesty (p.30) and acknowledge the boundaries of scientific capability. Sarewitz gives examples throughout the essay of individuals who have challenged the orthodoxy of the scientific community by insisting on a direct engagement with the real world, and that is the way to salvation:

The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream scientists is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to discover the path towards the truth (p.40)

That was the main plot of Saving Science. 

Is he right, Sarewitz? I’ll let the question hang for now.

instead I want to ask the question what we can learn from Saving Science for the ongoing interim evaluation of Horizon2020 as well as in our national innovation systems?

That is the question I will get back to in the upcoming posts here at according2research where I will discuss different aspects of the European innovation system, taking my cue from Sarewitz’ article.

The first post poses the question: Can the market save us from curiosity?
That post will look into  the classic collaborative projects (Research and Innovation actions in H2020) of the EU Framework Programme and possibly also get back to some the issue that I have discussed in previous posts here and here.

The next article asks the question: Is selfless honesty only a thing for scientists?
That post will look at the different stakeholder groups way of engaging with and trying to steer research. And I might include a detour to how 17th century scientists in the age of Robert Boyle and John Locke handled that issue.

The fourth and final article will raise the question: Can the EU Framework Programme be strategic?

I hope you will read along and comment on the way.