Martin Bernetti/ Getty Images

Le destin des sciences fondamentales

STANFORD – Le journaliste britannique Matt Ridley se montre habituellement pertinent dans les commentaires qu’il formule autour de la philosophie et de la pratique des sciences. En revanche, son analyse quant à la relation entre les recherches fondamentales et l’innovation technologique – consistant pour résumer à affirmer que les « sciences de base [seraient] beaucoup moins productives que nous le pensons par rapport aux nouvelles inventions » – apparaît clairement erronée.

Pour reprendre les termes de Ridley, « la plupart des avancées technologiques sont bien davantage le résultat d’un bricolage mené par des techniciens que le fruit des hypothèses auxquelles réfléchissent les chercheurs. » À l’appui de sa thèse, il énonce plusieurs exemples d’inventions élaborées grâce à des « travaux parallèles » : six inventeurs distincts furent ainsi nécessaires à la création du thermomètre, trois pour l’aiguille hypodermique, quatre pour la vaccination, cinq pour le télégraphe électrique, etc. Or, Ridley échoue à reconnaître que les piliers théoriques de ces différentes inventions résident certainement dans des recherches fondamentales menées auparavant, qui ne se destinaient à aucune application en particulier, et dont la signification demeurait totalement incertaine au moment de la conduite de ces recherches.

Après avoir reçu le prix Nobel de physiologie ou médecine en 1969, Salvador Luria, qui fut mon professeur de microbiologie au M.I.T, plaisanta sur la difficulté pour un chercheur de percevoir la signification même des conclusions de ses propres recherches. À tous ceux qui l’avaient félicité pour son prix, Luria adressa un dessin humoristique faisant apparaître un couple de personnes âgées, attablées autour de leur petit déjeuner. Prenant connaissance des journaux du matin, le mari s’exclame : « Nom de Zeus ! J’ai reçu le prix Nobel pour quelque chose que je semble avoir dit, fait ou pensé, en 1934 ! »

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. Television sets showing a news report on Xi Jinping's speech Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

    Empowering China’s New Miracle Workers

    China’s success in the next five years will depend largely on how well the government manages the tensions underlying its complex agenda. In particular, China’s leaders will need to balance a muscular Communist Party, setting standards and protecting the public interest, with an empowered market, driving the economy into the future.

  2. United States Supreme Court Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

    The Sovereignty that Really Matters

    The preference of some countries to isolate themselves within their borders is anachronistic and self-defeating, but it would be a serious mistake for others, fearing contagion, to respond by imposing strict isolation. Even in states that have succumbed to reductionist discourses, much of the population has not.

  3.  The price of Euro and US dollars Daniel Leal Olivas/Getty Images

    Resurrecting Creditor Adjustment

    When the Bretton Woods Agreement was hashed out in 1944, it was agreed that countries with current-account deficits should be able to limit temporarily purchases of goods from countries running surpluses. In the ensuing 73 years, the so-called "scarce-currency clause" has been largely forgotten; but it may be time to bring it back.

  4. Leaders of the Russian Revolution in Red Square Keystone France/Getty Images

    Trump’s Republican Collaborators

    Republican leaders have a choice: they can either continue to collaborate with President Donald Trump, thereby courting disaster, or they can renounce him, finally putting their country’s democracy ahead of loyalty to their party tribe. They are hardly the first politicians to face such a decision.

  5. Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron John Thys/Getty Images

    How Money Could Unblock the Brexit Talks

    With talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU stalled, negotiators should shift to the temporary “transition” Prime Minister Theresa May officially requested last month. Above all, the negotiators should focus immediately on the British budget contributions that will be required to make an orderly transition possible.

  6. Ksenia Sobchak Mladlen Antonov/Getty Images

    Is Vladimir Putin Losing His Grip?

    In recent decades, as President Vladimir Putin has entrenched his authority, Russia has seemed to be moving backward socially and economically. But while the Kremlin knows that it must reverse this trajectory, genuine reform would be incompatible with the kleptocratic character of Putin’s regime.

  7. Right-wing parties hold conference Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

    Rage Against the Elites

    • With the advantage of hindsight, four recent books bring to bear diverse perspectives on the West’s current populist moment. 
    • Taken together, they help us to understand what that moment is and how it arrived, while reminding us that history is contingent, not inevitable

    Global Bookmark

    Distinguished thinkers review the world’s most important new books on politics, economics, and international affairs.

  8. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin Bill Clark/Getty Images

    Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

    As a part of their efforts to roll back the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, congressional Republicans have approved a measure that would have courts, rather than regulators, oversee megabank bankruptcies. It is now up to the Trump administration to decide if it wants to set the stage for a repeat of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.