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Why it is necessary to measure scientific progress sans Nobel Prize award

The notion that science is invested in by the state to secure awards for its scientists is laughable - but the idea that science should be pursued for its own sake is just pernicious

Madhusudhan Raman | The Wire 

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In an article in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen express their concerns about the perceived slowdown of They note that there are “more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before.”

They ask whether this steadily rising investment of manpower and time in is yielding proportionately rising dividends, or whether we are “investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of

As they concede, it’s unclear how to measure the rate of One problem is unambiguously assigning value or importance to scientific breakthroughs. Do the most important discoveries yield the most technological applications? Or are those scientific advances that compel us to radically alter our perceptions of nature more valuable than those that are ‘normal’ in the sense of Thomas Kuhn? And what about the variation of perceived significance through time?

Collison and Nielsen surveyed scientists, asking them to pit Nobel Prize-winning discoveries against each other in a “round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.”

This is where the problems begin.

In an article in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen express their concerns about the perceived slowdown of scientific progress. They note that there are “more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before.”

They ask whether this steadily rising investment of manpower and time in is yielding proportionately rising dividends, or whether we are “investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?”

As they concede, it’s unclear how to measure the rate of scientific progress. One problem is unambiguously assigning value or importance to scientific breakthroughs. Do the most important discoveries yield the most technological applications? Or are those scientific advances that compel us to radically alter our perceptions of nature more valuable than those that are ‘normal’ in the sense of Thomas Kuhn? And what about the variation of perceived significance through time?

Collison and Nielsen surveyed scientists, asking them to pit Nobel Prize-winning discoveries against each other in a “round-robin tournament, competitively matching discoveries against each other, with expert scientists judging which is better.”

This is where the problems begin.

In Nandy’s words, scientific activity in this worldview “keep[s] the practice of outside politics” but maintains the “direct, privileged access to the state” that scientific institutions enjoy. Thus, the scientific establishment and the state legitimise each other and, in the process, the former abdicates its responsibility to the people.

A more democratic view of is as a vehicle exposing the citizenry to a method of analysis that is systematic and comprehensive. Its essential method can be used to study more complicated questions in city planning, economic policy, public health, etc.

For this to happen, the structure of higher-education programmes needs to be modified so they produce graduates of use to society’s wider needs. For example, higher-education programmes in the sciences could also train would-be graduates to teach middle- and high-school students, qualifying them for government jobs in the education sector. A graduate student studying epidemiology could, through changes in the academic pipeline, acquire additional qualifications in public health administration.

Academia has always seen scientists who fail to secure a permanent position in academia as failed academics. This is unfortunate. We need to structure in the sciences to allow for lateral moves, from to public administration, to economic planning, to education, etc.

Whether is “getting less bang for its buck” is not terribly important. Science is harder today because the questions we are asking are more nuanced, the experimental techniques are more sophisticated and the systems of study are more complex. It will take time, but we will get there. In the words of the mathematician David Hilbert, “We must know – we will know!”

The need of the hour is for institutional responses to avoid falling into the trap of optimising for more and other laurels. They should focus on organising to ensure young scientists useful not only to the science they practice but also the society they live in.


Madhusudhan Raman is a postdoctoral fellow at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. The views expressed here are personal.

Wih special permission from TheWire.in

First Published: Mon, November 26 2018. 07:23 IST
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