Populism and polarisation ‘grave threats’ to science
Poll of Nobel laureates highlights effect of divided politics on research. Jack Grove reports
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