The end of science?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

science in action?Over at The Guardian, Ehsan Mahsood wonders whether the culture of modern science is stifling the radical thinking and new discoveries that have always been science’s hallmark and driving force:

Revolutions in scientific thinking are always difficult – but perhaps one reason why we may see fewer of them in the future is because of the highly professional way in which modern science is organised. It takes a lot of courage to challenge conventionally accepted views, and it needs a certain amount of stamina to constantly battle those who want to protect the status quo. Mavericks do not do well in large organisations, which is what some scientific fields have become.

Progress in science needs researchers who are not afraid – or who are encouraged and rewarded – to ask awkward and difficult questions of theory and of new data. It is easier to question mainstream views if you are independently wealthy, as many scientists in previous ages tended to be. But I wonder how many of us would do so if we were employed by the state and our career progression depended on the validation of our peers?

Mahsood has a point here; you only have to look at the computer industry to see that the bigger a corporation gets the less likely it is to do something genuinely innovative. But it strikes me he’s overlooking the potential for unaffiliated independent scientists to work together in ways that wouldn’t be funded by cautious or conservative governments or foundations – what about all the DIY biohackers, for example?

Sure, there’s only so much they can do alone, but the internet means they have all the tools they need to network with their fellow enthusiasts, share information, collaborate… so maybe we’re not seeing the end of science as Mahsood would have it, but the end of state-funded science (at least for non-military applications). You could argue that clades of unaffiliated ‘rogue’ scientists would introduce a large element of danger, especially with regard to genetic or viral research… but then state-funded establishments have made their fair share of screw-ups, too, despite (or perhaps because of) the baroque architecture of procedural regulations. [image by neys]

But hey, let’s think positive here: at least science is opening up new channels for international diplomacy.

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4 Responses to “The end of science?”

  1. J. Alden Page says:

    The end of Science? I think the opposite is the case.

    1. We are seeing innovations at a greater rate than we ever have in the past.

    2. Breaking the mold in science isn’t discouraged it’s encouraged. If you can conduct a study that disproves what is currently accepted at the “status quo” it makes you famous.

    3. Large corporations can and do seek new innovations. In fact they have more ability to do research towards non-standard ideas than small groups and individuals. An individual must seek out funding wherever they can get it, where corporations can afford to spend a percentage of their budget on ideas that could be revolutionary but also might not pan out.

  2. SMD says:

    To be honest, if what is considered an adequate challenge to current concepts of science is religious mumbo jumbo about how the eye is irreducibly complex, then science is doing its job in keeping such things from damaging its reputation. Radical ideas are only good if they happen to follow some sort of logical rule.

    I don’t know, I just don’t see this whole thing as a problem. We’re discovering things all the time right now. What kind of radical ideas is he wanting? We’re finding cures for diseases, new technologies to change our energy infrastructure, etc. It’s not like science is at a loss for new discoveries…look at NASA!

  3. Matt says:

    I suspect Einstein would have objected to being considered ‘independently wealthy’ during the period he was a patents clerk – and so would many of the great, extremely important and revolutionary scientists who have had the benefit of working for large organisations. Does the author of that article think that science should be like a Michael Bay movie? Or that scientists should be aristocrats? What. What.

  4. Nick says:

    I’m a bit confused by the Guardian article really. The author says that a physicist says “we shouldn’t expect any new shocks to the system” and then he says “physics has the potential to take off in directions that we cannot predict” and that “physics holds the potential for a revolution in thinking”. Unless he’s accidentally misquoted the physicist, the author is pulling a fast one there.

    Also I think the strap line is misleading: the article seems to be bemoaning not the “highly professional way in which modern science is organised”, but rather the corporate way in which it’s organised. Two different things.