Sunday, 6 January 2013

Low-hanging fruit

Science was, within living memory, a fertile area of genuine discovery. Even during the period after World War 2, the low-hanging fruit had not all been picked, but gradually, step by step, it has.

That wouldn’t matter too much if the science myth was actually true and scientists do science for the love of it - but they don’t. We don’t do anything without some kind of gain – it’s how we are made. Once upon a time that gain was certainly the chance of making a discovery, but where do we go now?

It seems to me that huge numbers of scientists must know perfectly well that the chance of making a major scientific discovery is slight. So the game has to change - and it has.

Career progression, departmental budget, numbers of students, research grants, publications, conferences, academic awards, international travel and pension provisions. These were always important, but for many ambitious scientists of sub-genius ability they are all that is on offer.

The science itself, the discoveries and new developments are still with us, but all they generally do is to feed incremental changes into the corpus of scientific knowledge. They are not likely to be major game-changers.

Opportunities vary of course from science to science. Particularly between sciences where there is an end product, such as the material sciences, and those where there is generally no end product, such as the social or environmental sciences.

This in my view gives rise to science as a business where the main attraction cannot be the scientific ethos, but has to be business or career prospects. Ambitious scientists aren’t fools – they know how unlikely major discoveries are, how a career is the only ambition worth pursuing.

Science is well down the road to becoming just another profession where punters need to be on their guard against loaded advice. Passive smoking and anti-alcohol propaganda come to mind here. Ethical scientists who don’t actually make anything may have little left to give apart from an education.

The science myth is going the way of most myths, but as yet we still seem to be closing our eyes to it. Many seem to think that scientific purity is a permanent feature of our intellectual firmament and scientific prestige is secure.

Even though climate scientists sold theirs years ago.


Anonymous said...

Professionals - prostitutes or professors - do it for money or fame. He who pays the Piper calls the tune for even scientists must pay the mortgage. Most science is R&D - with an awful lot of D, R is a necessary gamble and D pays the bills. The selfless noble
enquirer went out with Henry Cavendish (and he was jolly rich).

But look around, the USA has a big push for science education, Bart Simpson is no longer their role model. Asia and China too. The snooty declare 'totally derivative Old Boy' - screw them, these guys are already eating our lunch. So what's to do, compete
head-on or specialise? World class experts in Jane Austin Studies maybe? Interesting but
unlikely to keep the lights on.

Gone the days of quadrille paper and S.O. pencils as the science budget, fork out serious cash now or go (completely) bust in 20 years. BTW 20 years is only four parliaments away - so we are totally screwed!

Anonymous said...

Oops - Austen - not an old banger.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I think the big US push for science education has more to do with patenting the tweaks than old style science.