Friday, 18 July 2008

Should we continue scientific research?

In the last issue of Sciences&Avenir (July 2008) a short article on Alexandre Grothendieck, a french mathematician, is presented in connection with the up-coming publication by IHéS (Institut des Hautes études Scientifiques) of a 1000 pages book he wrote, mostly about his life.
"Récoltes et Semailles" is available free on the Grothendieck_circle web site in French but some parts are also available in English, Spanish, Russian ... Many other writings both on mathematics and on his political activities can also be found on this well documented site. See also
"Comme Appelé du Néant— As If Summoned from the Void: The life of Alexandre Grothendieck by Allyn Jackson".

This 1966 Field medal laureate decided when he was at the top of his carrier to resign from IHéS partly after discovering that his institute was, to some extend (5%), supported by the defense ministry.

He started then a new life as a "anti-militarist" activist accepting to give mathematic talks only if he could also present his political ideas.

With a few other scientists, he founded an international movement called "Survivre" for the survival of mankind and a newsletter was published from 1970 to 1973.

1) Goal of the Movement
To fight for the survival of mankind and of life in general threatened by the ecological imbalance created by the present industrial society (pollutions and environmental and natural resources devastation), by military conflicts themselves and even by the dangers of military conflicts.
For a short period, he gave a lecture at the "College de France" (CDF) in Paris entitled: «Faut-il continuer la recherche scientifique ?» (Should we continue scientific research?) he was then turned down by the assembly of the CDF professors. He gave also a talk (in French) at CERN on this provocative question.

These writings raise important issues (central to this blog) that any scientist, at one point or another of his life, has been concerned with. A.G. should then be acknowledged for underlying the responsibility of the scientists toward the society at large, the role of science in the making of War and Peace and the implication of new technologies on the planet ecology.

Jean-Jacques Salomon, a French philosopher and writer who died last January had also strong criticisms on the underestimated social responsibility of the scientist (la responsabilite du scientifique) that sometimes he calls the social irresponsibility of scientists (Talk). But J.J. Salomon was also a convinced supporter of basic science. (why sustain fundamental research).
He was remembered recently during a conference of
the Japan Sokendai group "War and Peace" (see also here and there) by D. Leglu (War and Peace Tokyo 2008 to be published).

Back to the question "Should we continue scientific research?" IMHO YES, because stopping would mean stopping thinking.
From the prehistorical ages, the act of thinking has been dedicated to the research of ways to, precisely, survive: accessing basic needs (food, shelter, ...), providing a more secure and better life, fighting disease, reaching mental/spiritual balance ... This personal and permanent search for survival has led to the survival of humanity. Even if man was physically weaker on many respects than most of the other animals, his thinking brain has got, for better or worse, the upper hand over all life on this planet. And we are still doing research because all questions have not been solved, because some of the solutions found must be revisited as they are not fit to our today world, because new questions arise ...
Have we reached the no return point where
man is becoming dangerous to man? Yes probably, since sometime, pollution and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could now destroy the world as it was feared by A.G. but solutions will not be found by advocating for less research but on the contrary to more in the hope to find new technical innovations and a new social organization to avoid the "big human crunch".

To the question "Should we continue scientific research the way we do it today?" A.G. in the CERN's talk reply by a strong NO. Research brings more harm than relief. Unavoidably all scientific results are and will be used to improve the military power, to more efficiently coerce people into slavery (George Orwell's 1984) and to contribute to the destruction of the planet ecology.

Well one can agree with this but, it is only up to us ( the society) to fight against the evil use of science and to us to promote a peaceful, free and sustainable world that science and technology can also contribute to provide.
What should be changed in the way we do research? One may advance on many fronts:
  1. Scientist's Rights: If scientists have responsibilities, they must also have rights: the right to oppose to some applications of science and the right to speak out openly without constrains or retaliation risks. How to fulfill these conditions is a major issue and will imply a change of society. But the solution will include a better protection of the scientists although not excluding some control by the society and more regulations at the global level (arms, pollution, resources, labor, ...) to the setting up of which scientists should participate...
  2. Improving the common understanding between scientists and politician/decision makers. The gap is often large in term of scientific/political knowledge, short and long term visions and goals, agenda ... although both communities are genuinely willing to bridge those differences (see for example here)
  3. Moving away from a market/profit-driven research: Research funding should be managed by scientific organizations even if the global envelop is set directly or indirectly by the society. Public or private, it is not so much the source of the budget which counts, it is the freedom which comes with it. However public money is the direct effort of the society to support an open research.
  4. Making science information more accessible to the people. Internet can play a major role through the development of open access and good informative sites. Scientists are committing themselves and spending a fair amount of time on science internet forums, high quality scientific blogs, science cafés (real or virtual), world science festivals ...
  5. Get the people involved in scientific research. Some attempts although modests are quite successful and more attention should be devoted to those activities. After the "Volunteer Computing" initiated by seti@home and generalized by BOINC where anyone with a PC connected to the internet could dedicate CPU power to some scientific project, "citizen science" or "distributed thinking" (see Bossa) is now relying on ordinary people to perform large classification or pattern recognition tasks where human brains, even from non-scientifically trained people, are often much better than computers (see The Economist and galaxy zoo, or stardurst@home).
  6. Research and particularly basic research should become Global. Country level basic research makes no sense nowadays, resources must be federated and the results made freely available to the whole world. New world-wide research infrastructures should be developed based on international treaties like CERN to secure long term budgets. In this context the LHC and ITER projects among others should provide important inputs to this discussion.
  7. Developing countries should be involved on frontier research and in particular on the large research infrastructures to help solving the knowledge divide.
Proof reading this post, I wonder if these 7 items are actually achievable or pure utopia leading to the dishearten thought that A. Grothendieck was maybe right... but is'nt utopia sustaining progress?

1 comment:

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Denis,

Thanks for the link you left at my blog. It seems to me our interest have a significant overlap. I too consider the globalization of the scientific community - and its role in our societies - as a very important task that is constantly increasing in relevance. You might want to check the websites of our proposed institute, see the Lightcone Institute. If you are interested to learn more, just send me an email. Best,