The virtuous cycle of questions, observations, theory and technology development driving scientific and industrial progress is losing its churn. Now what?
Good science starts with curiosity and leads to a strong sense of wonder about nature’s astonishing ways. It’s a virtuous endeavor, but, somewhat comparable to the arts, one that’s almost impossible to express as economic value. Technologists and scientists nonetheless also claim a ‘hard’ return on investment beyond just virtue and wonder: without the exact sciences, there would be no transistors, ICs, lasers, computers, TVs, mobile phones, internet, light bulbs and LEDs, solar panels, engines, energy infrastructure, vaccine developments, and so on.
Already at his inauguration address in 1989, well-known physicist Ad Lagendijk commented on such claims, and his case has only gotten stronger over the years. Judging from the number of publications – 2.3 million per year for physics alone – science is booming, but the return on investment is diminishing. If one compares the ratio between economic success versus investment needed for today’s efforts and those made during the booming sixties of the previous century, it’s clear that economic impact and progress from science are on a downward trend. And so is the trend level of industrial and governmental funding for it.
During the last century’s boom period, technological progress and science developments went hand in hand. Today, many of the remaining fundamental science problems are characterized by their remoteness from practical life. Contemporary physicists look far out in the universe for questions to answer: about dark matter and dark energy, accelerated expansion and gravitation. On Earth, the pool of fundamental questions has dried up. As Richard Feynman said about fundamental scientific discovery: it can’t keep on going.
Without the ‘usefulness of useless knowledge,’ the difference between the arts and science in motivating support for further endeavors diminishes. Luckily, our society faces urgent technological challenges in areas like clean energy, environmental impact and health. If the basic set of bricks for building practical application of the sciences has been developed up to an almost magical level of completion, isn’t it fair to expect that taxpayers’ and consumers’ funding is directed to such challenges?
As astrophysicist and cosmologist Martin Rees wrote: “There’s no justification for snobbery of pure over applied work. Harnessing a scientific concept for practical goals can be a greater challenge than the initial discovery.” Looking back on my own career, experiencing that your work sometimes finds its way into real products and useful applications is a temporary, but extremely satisfying, delight. I hope that everyone experiences such a delight during their lifetime!
If it were up to me, science-for-a-purpose becomes leading in generating new research questions and rewarding new research proposals. Such projects would be multidisciplinary in scope and are executed in a European context. Proper research questions not only generate new technologies and useful applications but may also include a related, more fundamental aspect that demands deeper understanding.
In this paradigm shift, selection, management, execution and validation of projects while avoiding extensive delays in decision and feedback loops becomes even more complicated. Finding the optimal balance between industrial and governmental responsibilities becomes a more difficult task. And education and career will be multidisciplinary: scientists will encounter and have to learn topics where many, and also new, cross-disciplines come together.
Deep knowledge remains of utmost value, obviously, but mostly in the context of being a partner in teams consisting of a broad range of experts in and outside your field of expertise. During a career, professionals will repeatedly need to adapt and invest to broaden their expertise accordingly. Universities and institutes for higher education and industrial R&D organizations need to rethink their structure, staff, rewarding systems, career tracks, educational planning and modes of collaboration.
The role of the technologist/exact scientist adapts accordingly: from pioneer and explorer of new uncharted territory, king or queen of the exact sciences to bricklayer. Such inspiring professional scientists will be more highly in demand than ever.