Thursday, November 27, 2014

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.

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    1. Portrait of Nils-Göran Areskoug

      CommentedNils-Göran Areskoug

      I agree that science cannot directly create results that can be readily commercialized and get people into jobs.

      But: Does Europe’s strength really lie in its science base? I believe this base relies on a foundation yet deeper, Europe’s cultural diversity. The science base is no more than the tiny intersection between the richness of cultural expression and what politics permit. Especially, this richness is not reflected in the minds of politicians who have adopted a much more narrow perspective, that of securing their mandate. But their reliance on bare consensus populism is a severe limitation to the innovation and true creativity much needed for entrepreneurial creation to take off. The prevailing trend, for instance in Sweden, is that a gradually narrower political elite is thwarting initiatives by bureaucratic power plays to secure real governance of wealthy state funds. We get more of the same. Science declines into predictable public relation. A silently aligned group of “science advocates” in alliance with populist policy-makers (not to be defined along right-or-left wing polarization) receive practically unlimited funding to hammer through the simplified messages from self-defined “authorities”. Subtle diplomacy is used to soothe majorities. Much less room is freed up for far-sighted visions of a strategic innovation that reaches outside the box. In addition, the value of the European cultural diversity, rooted in its ambitious core competence to create quality (still slightly unique for Europe as a whole), is not understood among the political elite as a potentially powerful wealth generator for the continent. Despite harsh tax environment, there are a few great entrepreneurs who demonstrated a functioning model of economic growth by staying close to the true needs of the many people. But the gap between this private world and political power structures in charge cannot easily be overcome. To release the creative energies badly needed Europe should make its political troika reflect more of that root competence. Lack of listening, a form of social amusia, is epidemic and no signs of remedy in sight. The prevalence of the condition spread far beyond Brussels, is endemic in Stockholm and heading for the polar bears. Cause of the disease is lack of cultural assimilation.

      And: Is Science really “the only civic institution with a built-in long-term time horizon”? Let me pose a counter-question: What is it that has survived not merely three centuries but almost three millennia? Yes, it is culture. It is the long-term building of the European root-idiom. Essentials of it stems from the ancient Mediterranean area currently under stress. Daily pictures of social unrest and disruption seemingly reflect an ongoing decay of the Parthenon architecture.

      So: I am not so sure that the best solution for Europe’s scientific institutions is to “evolve and adapt to global challenges” in that sense. Why always compete on playing-fields defined by others? Why never look back to see what values can be extracted and consolidated by building on an awareness of our own heritage? Make Europe’s rich cultural history redefine a stepping-stone for advancement. This is not meant as a conservative recipe but as a call to use human talent to release implicit value for the future. At least I doubt the road map for implementing Europe’s strategic vision can be (re-)designed without integration across past and present.

      Ask not if "Science can Save Europe" but what must be done to make Europe Save Science.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      In truth we already have all the necessary factual and scientific information to solve the European problem, or in fact to solve all our global problems.
      Human talent, ingenuity, adaptability has never been the problem.
      The problem is with our inherent subjective, selfish, exploitative nature.
      So far all through our history as soon as we developed, invented, revealed something, within a short time it was turned into weapons, or other means of exploitation for self benefit, profit.
      If we honestly examine even the charitable, seemingly bestowing type of actions we do today, there is always some self benefit or ulterior motif behind it.
      In order to solve our problems, and build a sustainable future the only thing we need to change is our own nature, attitude, to consider the interconnected, and interdependent whole before our self interest.
      If our main priority is to sustain, develop the total system before self calculations we will succeed in anything we do.

    3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The basic scientific foundations of modern society is beyond question. The chicken-and-egg question of which is precedent is misleading. They are in a virtuous circle with each other.
      There is a question about our philosophy in Europe. Do we wish to follow evidence? What policies achieve our goals? Are our goals honest? Do we want the greatest good for the greatest number? Are we willing to set a minimum level below which none in our society fall? Will we follow evidence or interests?