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