‘What I was ask­ing was a very ba­sic, sim­ple ques­tion that peo­ple thought they knew the an­swer to, but they did not'

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

Idon’t think al­most any of the prob­lems I see to­day would worry me, if we knew how to work to­gether and how to think through prob­lems to­gether in a ra­tio­nal way that wove to­gether fears and needs with a ra­tio­nal un­der­stand­ing of the world.”

So said No­bel lau­re­ate Saul Perl­mut­ter at Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Aca­demic Sum­mit at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley in Septem­ber last year (“You can’t or­der up a break­through”, Fea­tures, 12 Jan­uary).

How­ever, the Berke­ley pro­fes­sor of physics is not con­vinced that the cur­rent meth­ods of teach­ing and fund­ing science are con­ducive to mak­ing the best of that prob­lem-solv­ing ca­pac­ity, be­cause re­searchers are not be­ing af­forded enough free­dom. “You can’t or­der [tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs] up; you have to let peo­ple try out ideas,” he said. “When you fo­cus re­ally smart peo­ple on ex­cit­ing prob­lems they in­vent all sorts of things.”

Re­gard­ing the re­search on the ex­pan­sion of the uni­verse that led to his shar­ing the No­bel Prize in Physics in 2011, Perl­mut­ter’s hunch is that it would not be funded to­day. “It would have been very dif­fi­cult [to jus­tify] in a world in which you’re man­ag­ing ev­ery last cent and mak­ing sure that you don’t waste any money.”

Com­ing from a No­bel lau­re­ate, these points have in­evitably gen­er­ated a lot of dis­cus­sion. But do other mem­bers of that ex­alted group agree with Perl­mut­ter’s take on the issues fac­ing the world, science and uni­ver­si­ties? To find out, THE teamed up with the Lin­dau No­bel Lau­re­ate Meet­ings or­gan­i­sa­tion to sur­vey their views.

Fewer than 700 in­di­vid­u­als have won a No­bel prize for science, medicine or eco­nom­ics since the first awards in 1901. Of those, only about 235 re­cip­i­ents are still liv­ing. But with the help of the Ger­man or­gan­i­sa­tion that co­or­di­nates an an­nual con­fer­ence of No­bel lau­re­ates, THE has been able to can­vass the views of 50 of them.

Here we set out the some­times sur­pris­ing col­lec­tive take of some of the world’s bright­est and most cel­e­brated minds on ev­ery­thing from the mer­its of the cur­rent fund­ing sys­tem to the big­gest threats fac­ing hu­mankind.

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