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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 ! »

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