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Can Science Save Europe?

VIENNA– Europe’s current financial squeeze defies easy solutions. Self-inflicted austerity has met popular restlessness for more tangible measures to revive economic growth and create jobs. Protesters vividly express widespread frustration with deepening inequality, and condemnation of privileges of a global financial elite comes uncomfortably close to implicating government.

In previous times, such a situation would have been described as pre-revolutionary. In today’s world, the consequences may seem more benign, but they are no less worrisome: a loss of solidarity, a return to nationalist insularity, and greater scope for political extremism.

Europe’s image has suffered accordingly, notably from the perspective of Asia’s booming economies. Whereas China, India, and others have enjoyed continuing economic growth and investment in research and innovative capacity, Europe is perceived as being on the brink of decline, economically as well as politically. Worse still, Europe also seems intent on ignoring its persistent strengths.

Those strengths lie in Europe’s science base, part of the cultural heritage that shapes European identity. In terms of numbers – whether of scientific publications, researchers, or overall access to high-quality tertiary education – Europe compares favorably with its international partners (which are also competitors).

So why, critics ask, does Europe produce many novel scientific ideas and discoveries, but fail to transform them into marketable products?

In fact, that question is wedded to an obsolete linear model of innovation. What is lacking in Europe is public and official awareness of where the real potential of European science lies. Scientific curiosity, given sufficient space and autonomy, remains the most powerful driving force behind the completely unforeseeable transformations in how our societies develop.

In order to understand what science can do for Europe, it is important to clarify what science – that is, curiosity-driven frontier research – cannot do for Europe: deliver results that can immediately be commercialized.

Frontier research, like innovation, is an inherently uncertain process. One does not know what one will find when working at the cutting edge and attempting to push into unknown territory. Any short-term economic benefits are welcome byproducts, not the main “deliverables” that can be planned. Nor will science create much-needed jobs, except for those who work in research organizations and universities.

Instead, cutting-edge research pioneers new ways of working (and models of future workplaces), which require novel skills and knowledge that will diffuse widely into society and transform production and services. For example, it could lead to more environmentally friendly and resource-efficient uses of natural resources, or to investment in services that are more responsive to human needs and better attuned to human interaction.

Science is the only civic institution with a built-in long-term time horizon – a feature that builds confidence in a fragile future. Modern science began in Europe 300 years ago with relatively few people – perhaps no more than a thousand when the putative scientific revolution was in full swing. They began to engage in the systematic inquiry of how the natural world (and to a lesser extent, the social world) functioned. They obtained new knowledge of how to manipulate and intervene in natural processes. The experimental practices that they invented spread beyond the laboratories. Later, they began to underpin and merge with progress in the crafts to drive forward the Industrial Revolution.

The idea that we can only know what we can make gained wide acceptance. New tools provide new means of investigation, enabling researchers to speed up computation, for example, and hence increase the production of new knowledge. Science and technology mutually reinforce each other, and both percolate through the social fabric. This was the case in 1700, and it remains true today.

Let us now look forward towards the future. According to health statistician Hans Rosling, our planet will probably be home to at least nine billion people by 2050. Six billion will live in Asia, one billion in Africa, 1.5 billion in the Americas, and 500 million in Europe. By ensuring that the pursuit of new knowledge remains a high priority, Europe can safeguard the scientific revolution and retain a leading edge globally, despite having fewer people than other regions.

Europe’s scientific institutions are already evolving and adapting to new global challenges. People working within science and people working with science – ordinary citizens – will assure that the unending quest for human betterment continues to be an important part of European identity.

Science alone will not save Europe. Rather, a Europe that knows how to put its science to work will not need to be saved.