Pop­ulism and po­lar­i­sa­tion ‘grave threats’ to science

Poll of No­bel lau­re­ates high­lights ef­fect of di­vided pol­i­tics on re­search. Jack Grove re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion and the rise of pop­ulism rep­re­sent ma­jor threats to sci­en­tific progress, No­bel lau­re­ates have warned in a Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion sur­vey.

In a his­toric poll of science’s lead­ing fig­ures, con­ducted to mark the open­ing of THE’s World Aca­demic Sum­mit at King’s Col­lege Lon­don next week, some 50 No­bel prizewin­ners in science and eco­nom­ics gave their views on a di­verse set of issues rang­ing from univer­sity fund­ing and aca­demic mo­bil­ity to the big­gest threats fac­ing hu­man­ity.

Asked how much mod­ern science might be af­fected by the rise of pop­ulism and po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion, 70 per cent of lau­re­ates said that they saw these twin phe­nom­ena as ei­ther a “grave threat” (40 per cent) or a “se­ri­ous threat” (30 per cent) to sci­en­tific progress. Another 25 per cent per­ceived these trends – ob­served in the US un­der Don­ald Trump’s di­vi­sive pres­i­dency and in the UK re­gard­ing the po­lit­i­cal schism over Brexit – as a “mod­er­ate” threat.

Many lau­re­ates sounded the alarm over the in­creased will­ing­ness of some pop­ulist politi­cians to dis­re­gard ro­bust sci­en­tific ev­i­dence.

“To­day, facts seem to be ques­tioned by many peo­ple who pre­fer to be­lieve ru­mours rather than well-es­tab­lished sci­en­tific facts,” said Jean-Pierre Sau­vage, the Univer­sity of Stras­bourg aca­demic who shared the No­bel Prize in Chem­istry in 2016.

Peter Agre, di­rec­tor of the Johns Hop­kins Malaria Re­search In­sti­tute, who won the chem­istry prize in 2003, was con­cerned about the man­ner in which Mr Trump “flaunts his ig­no­rance” to ap­peal to a group of Amer­i­cans who are happy to dis­miss the opin­ions of sci­en­tists or aca­demic ex­perts.

Mr Trump, whom he likened to a“Bat­man vil­lain” ow­ing to his “wicked and self­ish” acts while in of­fice, was “ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­in­formed and bad-na­tured”, said Pro­fes­sor Agre, who is one of the speak­ers at THE’s sum­mit, which will host al­most 500 global univer­sity lead­ers and se­nior staff be­tween 3 and 5 Septem­ber.

Other No­bel sci­en­tists who re­sponded to the sur­vey, which was as­sisted by the Lin­dau Foun­da­tion, wor­ried that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate might lead an “anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism” that might see science fund­ing cut in the near fu­ture.

The sur­vey – which cap­tured the views of about one in five liv­ing lau­re­ates in science or eco­nom­ics – also asked No­bel win­ners how im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional mo­bil­ity of re­searchers was in push­ing the bound­aries of science. Eighty-one per cent replied that it was ei­ther “very im­por­tant” (43 per cent) or “cru­cial” (38 per cent), with 19 per cent stat­ing that it was “rea­son­ably im­por­tant”. None said that it was unim­por­tant.

“A large frac­tion of ad­vances in fore­front re­search is car­ried out by

a very small frac­tion of peo­ple,” ex­plained one US lau­re­ate, who said that it was there­fore cru­cial to draw upon the largest pool of tal­ent avail­able across the world. In­ter­ac­tions via Skype were no sub­sti­tute for the “strong per­sonal re­la­tion­ships” be­tween re­searchers cre­ated by in­ter­na­tional mo­bil­ity, added Brian Sch­midt, the as­tro­physi­cist who shared the No­bel Prize in Physics in 2011. “It is only by shar­ing ideas from great minds and in­sti­tu­tions [in this way] that you can hope to make the fastest progress on ad­vanc­ing knowl­edge,” said Pro­fes­sor Sch­midt, who is now vice-chan­cel­lor of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

In other re­sults, three-quar­ters of lau­re­ates (74 per cent) stated that they did not be­lieve ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence or ro­bot­ics would re­sult in the need for fewer hu­man re­searchers, with only 24 per cent agree­ing that this was a pos­si­bil­ity and only one say­ing that it would def­i­nitely hap­pen.

“Only hu­man in­tel­li­gence and re­flec­tion re­sult in novel and orig­i­nal con­cepts,” said one lau­re­ate, while another stated that “putting a mil­lion ro­bots to­gether” would never re­pro­duce the ge­nius that al­lowed Mozart to write Don Gio­vanni or Schu­bert Die Win­ter­reise.

Asked about the big­gest threat to aca­demic life, lack of money was the most fre­quently men­tioned chal­lenge, with two in five alarmed by the ris­ing cost of stu­dent tu­ition or the un­der­fund­ing of pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. Grow­ing in­equal­ity on cam­pus was also cited by lau­re­ates as a cause for con­cern; one be­moaned the fact that “at the top pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties [in the US] the num­ber of stu­dents with par­ents in the top 1 per cent [of the in­come scale] is equal to the num­ber of stu­dents with par­ents in the bot­tom 50 per cent of in­come.”

But 84 per cent of re­spon­dents said that they “def­i­nitely” or “prob­a­bly” would have been able to make their No­bel-win­ning dis­cov­ery in to­day’s fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment, with only 16 per cent an­swer­ing that they would prob­a­bly have been un­able to.

John Gill, edi­tor of THE, said that the sur­vey of­fered an “un­prece­dented in­sight” into the views of the world’s most cel­e­brated sci­en­tists.

“It’s clear that, as a group, they har­bour grave con­cerns about the mo­ti­va­tions of some of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, and the likely im­pact of tech­no­log­i­cal, de­mo­graphic and en­vi­ron­men­tal change in the fu­ture,” Mr Gill said. “Most see the pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of ed­u­ca­tion glob­ally as the only cred­i­ble so­lu­tion to this.”

Warn­ing No­bel win­ners cite di­vi­sive pol­i­tics of lead­ers such as US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as a ma­jor threat to sci­en­tific progress

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