Do we have a ‘social contract’ with science?

A quarter of a century ago I gave a named lecture in the UK, which was transmuted quickly into an article that appeared in both a British and an Australian journal (oh yes, each peer-reviewed). It was called ‘How research came to dominate higher education and what ought to be done about it’. If you summon up the title you will find that you can read it for US$274, of which I get nothing at all. My argument was that research had grown to become the dominant path for those seeking appointment and promotion in universities in the Western world, and by doing so had displaced the excellent and honourable role of university teaching — and all the other academic paths to honour as well.

I liked the article, and it had a good run. Indeed, it probably helped push Australian universities into doing something about uplifting the role of teaching, and before long appeared vice-chancellors’ awards for teaching, and then later the Australian Government’s award for the best university teacher of the year. Yet all the time the size of the research domain grew and grew.

At the time of that lecture I had been involved in trying to get more funding for the research enterprise in universities, and had the difficult job of explaining to some of my scientific colleagues that just saying that we needed more money was not getting us anywhere. ‘It’s really a kind of contract, with the Australian people,’ I said. ‘What we do has to be in some sense in the interest, and for the betterment, of everyone in the country.’ No one liked it, and I went further, saying that we had to be able to explain to the local greengrocer why the money he was providing to us would return in spades, so to speak, in improved life for him and his family. Yes, it was a long shot. Physicists and chemists shook their heads. How would advances in string theory assist a greengrocer?

All this came back to me recently when I came across an address by an American geoscientist, Bill Hooke, in EOS, the house journal of the American Geophysical Union, the big professional body representing geologists, with 62,000 members. The AGU has an official pro-AGW position, so Hooke’s article is even more important. You can read it here: ‘Reaffirming the Social Contract Between Science and Society’.  My attention was instantly aroused by the title, and the summary made me read on: Our geosciences community too often gives the impression that we care primarily about more funding for our research. Such overt self-interest poses risks to our community and to society.

I think you could say that about virtually all research in academia these days, and certainly in Australia. Hooke starts with Francis Bacon, who admonished all those involved in the pursuit of knowledge that they should do what they do ‘for the benefit and use of life’, and ‘not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things…’ Ah, Francis of Verulam, what would you say about things today? Hooke goes on to point out that most research is funded by the public, many of them poorer than the researchers themselves. This raises questions: Why should they pay us? Isn’t it because they hope that our labors will improve their lot in life? Don’t we owe them something? What would a fair return on society’s investment look like?

What has changed since 1990? Nothing much, save that the scale of research, and thus the problem that Hooke is writing about, are so much bigger. We both started our essays with Vannevar Bush, the man who persuaded President Truman that there ought to be a foundation for research, and that funding should go to the really excellent, pursuing what they saw to be the important questions. In time came the National Science Foundation, the precursor of both the British and the Australian research funding bodies. They too adopted the policy that excellence ruled, and that ‘curiosity-driven’ research was the way to go.

Back to Hooke. Stresses over the past decade or so have frayed the fabric of the social contract between scientists and society. The complexity and costs of science have been growing. Urgent societal challenges (in education, environmental protection, foreign relations, maintenance of aging critical infrastructure, national security, public health, and more) demand quick fixes even as they compete with the funding for science.

He doesn’t say so, but I will — that there is now an assumption that every problem demands a research response, that research results can be decisive, and that research therefore rules. Hooke again: Unfortunately, many scientists have responded by resorting to advocacy. Worse, we’ve too often dumbed down our lobbying until it’s little more than simplistic, orchestrated, self-serving pleas for increased research funding, accompanied at times by the merest smidgen of supporting argument. At the same time, particularly in Earth OSS, as we’ve observed and studied emerging natural resource shortages, environmental degradation, and vulnerability to hazards, we’ve allowed ourselves to turn into scolds. Worse, we’ve chosen sides politically, largely abandoning any pretense at nonpartisanship.

‘Climate change’ is the perfect example, though he doesn’t mention it, perhaps because to do so might have imperilled publication, given the AGU’s stance. Hooke urges his colleagues  to ‘press the Reset button’: Let’s show more gratitude for the support the public and public leaders have provided to date. Let’s thread ourselves through the whole of society, where the pressing problems are close at hand, and collaborate in their practical solution versus studying the problems at some distance and earning the derisive ivory-tower label. Let’s do this out of a genuine, loving concern rather than as a manipulative, self-serving (and all-too-transparent) technique. We’ll not only establish a more robust, sustainable, and productive social contract going forward; we’ll set the world on a more sustainable path toward a brighter future…

Judith Curry located this article, and summarised it on her Climate etc website, where she added her own reflections. One recollection of hers resonated with me, because I remember the context so well in Australia:

In the 1990’s while I was at the University of Colorado, I was running fast on the treadmill of trying to get more and more research funding, so I could pay students and research scientists to do research, which I no longer had time to do personally, since I was too busy writing research proposals, managing my research group, and traveling endlessly to develop programs at the international and national levels that could justify more funding. ‘Success’ was defined by research funding $$, number of publications, and leadership in national/international programs.

Professor Curry was able to press her own Reset button. But who is to do it for the research community as a whole — and how?

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    This is an important subject, especially as the public purse is not limitless. My guess would be that, of all the scientists who receive funds, it is only a minority who come up with value for money. Of course, a single discovery can generate enough ‘wealth’ as to justify all the rest put together. Although scientists are perhaps the most arrogant in their belief in their self-importance, it is not just in science that the problem of excessive demand on taxpayer grants needs to be faced, whether it be in support for voluntary organisations or arts or sports organisations and many others. All these people are saying ‘me, me, my pet subject!’ In my judgement, all these fields have become overextended in their dependence on the budget and I would impose cuts or, at least, ‘benign neglect,’ or the same money as last year with no inflation adjustment.

  • David says:

    Don I think one of my favorite scientists is John Harrison. I sense you would appreciate is unorthodoxy and tenacity, too. Its very hard to imagine his science would have been appreciated by any research funding system.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes, I know of him, but didn’t read the book about him. Of course, he was funded by a funding agency, unlike most ‘scientists’ of his day and later. The Wikipedia article demonstrates that he kept being funded because he was seen as someone who might just pull off the desired discovery. That is rather like today, in fact.

      Thanks for drawing my attention to him.

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