Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Research is NOT global, ... in many senses.

Science is front page.

Everyday science related news are making headlines: global warming, ocean pollution, overfishing, earthquake prediction, dust clouds, food security, ... you name it. Everyday scientists, experts of the domain or not, are on "Breaking news" to explain
, predict and propose solutions.
Science is part of o
ur everyday life and leading the innovation economy.

But today, research which produces this knowledge, research which is dealing with global issues, research which is attempting to uncover the same uncharted science territories whether being done in the US, Europe, Asia or elsewhere is not globally organized so as to meet the needs of the 21st century.

In a global economy, in a world of instant communication, research remains largely segmented in terms of topics, widely scattered geographically, chaotically funded and, besides a few highly praised exceptions, uncoordinated. That makes it unfit to today's societal needs.
The good news is that the science community is addressing these issues. See the first Asia-Europe Physics Summit (ASEPS) held in Tsukuba (Japan), March 24-26, 2010, also here.

Segmented topics: not even an ivory tower, ... a sand hole.

This year the Royal Society of UK is celebrating its 350 years anniversary and the actual birth of "modern science" (17th century). Although the date may be controversial as other historians prefer to time-stamp this birth to Roger Bacon (12th century), the father of experimental science or to the "Copernican revolution" in the 15th century, it is clear that "modern science" really got started when the new paradigm of an unique reliance on experimental or observational data nurturing comprehensive theories took over dogmatism or religious believes.

Then, during the following centuries, modern research has been categorized in smaller and smaller domains to a point that have led researchers to a poor overview of the global issues and of the interplay between the different research fields.
For example, today, a researcher, let say a physicist, which already singles out a small part of the wide research spectrum, can be of "particle physics" flavor, again a small portion of all physicists. She is actually focusing on LHC physics (among dozens of other experiments) more precisely she is on ATLAS (one of four experiments) and a specialist of the Higgs particle (among dozens of other topics) and, maybe, finally only expert of the Higgs mass measurement (but at world-level). It is very likely that she will have only a shallow knowledge on the CMS (another of the four LHC experiments) detailed experimental issues and even less on neutrino physics, her colleague-next-door's specialty. The world of nuclear, plasma, laser or nano-technologies yet part of physics or, even-more, life science research may very well be unknown to her although she is a well-renowned scientist.

Researchers have become hyper-specialized, experts of an everyday smaller and smaller domain. Trapped in their own narrow field, they tend to loose sight of the global issues, like the butterfly hunter of the Kobo Abe novel. In "The woman of the dunes" the man felt in an inescapable sand hole where an attractive woman was also kept prisoner. For a while, the situation was not so bad, after all, even enjoyable but on the long term the situation became dreadful.
Researchers should not be blamed, nobody actually, should. The point is that research has become so complex that committing full time to a narrow topic is a bare necessity to make any real progress.
But this can only be done at the expense of a wider and more global vision, not to mention a vision leaping out of its one domain to another, like from physics to biology. Free from external contingencies, fully focused on what one knows and do best could be, also, an enjoyable situation, ... for a time.
The problem is that this is not what the society wants, not what the decision makers are looking for and are ready to support. What is wanted from the researcher is to bring solutions, not to understand basic processes.

The society wants sustainable, cheap and not polluting energies, abundant, safe and tasty food or efficient cancer cures, but not the Theory Of Everything

In other words, the requirement for achieving frontier research which is, in passing, the only way to, in the long term, provide new and innovative solutions is clashing agai
nst the immediate needs of the society. In the first case researchers need to focus for a long time, sometimes a life span, on narrow and deep problems when the second requires wide pluri-disciplinary studies and building bridges between many research fields.
Inviting to the same Summit all major fields of physics and of the applications of physics to other research domains under the banner "Physics Toward Innovation" as do ASEPS is a first step in a reconciliation between basic research and societal needs.

Funding is overly segmented.

This issue just got more acute this last decade as research requires now larger budgets compared to what was needed 50 years ago when, for example, a table-top optical microscope was good enough for making frontier research in biology. Nowadays a 600 MEuro, 350 m synchrotron radiation ring like "Soleil" is the basic biology tool. Well,.. one infrastructure serves many users, but still this price tag is not insignificant for the meager R$D budgets.

Researchers are not financing their research as they used to, a century ago. Research was then supported by themselves or by some wealthy sponsors either merchant or prince. The decision whether to fund or not a project was quite easily done even if sometimes it required convincing down-to-earth arguments.
Nowadays, complex funding organizations have been created. They are, often, built aside of the heart of research, with different goals, different management methods and different time-lines.
Moreover the financing sources have been multiplying. In France, for example, scientific projects can be supported by as many as 5 different types of organizations: local universities, regional government, national research organization like CNRS, INSERM or INRIA, national funding agencies like ANR and by European Grants. In each case, a definite application must be written according to the various motivations and criteria pertaining to each funding organization. This is a cumbersome and time consuming activity taking often a large time of the best scientists.

This is one of the issue addressed by the ASEPS various working groups.

Information is segmented and disparate
Politicians, decision makers, industrial leaders and scientists are not in the same boat.

Congress, senate, diet or other national assembly representatives have usually no scientific background and remain poorly informed on scientific issues. They are more prepared to and more concerned with immediate requests from the society in direct relation with the next elections. At the highest level, Presidents or Prime Ministers have internal affairs urgency which often put decisions on scientific issues at a much lower level (see the last Global warming Copenhagen Summit). Conversation between 2 leaders during a late meeting:
"..., we are not staying until tomorrow. I'm just letting you know. Because all of us obviously have extraordinarily important other business to attend to."
If the society leniently accept the necessity for science, decision makers are sometimes more difficult to convince. The decision makers who have the final word on the budget allocations have sometimes a solid science background, sometimes not, which makes discussions difficult and uneven especially at the international level. Therefore discussion are rare, when they occur, they are often confrontational due to the very competitive funding.

The industry is not either a full fledged research partner. The industry which values the discoveries by creating new technologies and makes them available to the society, the industry which build and sell the large scientific infrastructures and the research instruments without which no modern research could be possible, this industry is not quite involved in the scientific discussion.
Moreover financial objective of short term earning has put long term research
and innovation on the slow lane. Innovation is seen as a too expensive investment for many companies. Moreover patenting is hampering research innovation and the research-industry dialog although it was meant to do exactly the opposite.

Therefore the 3 communities that make research, researchers, decision-makers and industry leaders are on different tracks and do not collaborate enough to make research efficient and useful to the society.

The need to setup the appropriate communication channels is blatant.

Finally research is not, geographically, global.

Historically, science has evolved, more or less independently in the various regions of the world. The Arabic, the Incas, the Greek, the Chinese or the Indian sciences have shaped our knowledge. They only had rare contacts through wars or trade. Science became then a national asset and today, although the research issues and questionings are global, we are still counting the number of Nobel laureates by countries.
To a few exceptions, including the European Union R&D funding, most of R&D money is supported by the countries in a very poor coordination.
Some projects are multi-lateral like ITER or regional like CERN or EMBL, they are the result of exceptional historical and political circumstances. It is not clear that today, in the current geopolitical-economical situation, CERN, the flagship of European research, would be even created.

Therefore global research governance is needed but will only come by steps. As for today ASEPS is focusing on the Asia-Europe research cooperation to boost it to the US-Europe and US-Asia levels where the links are well established and easier to maintained mainly because US is a single country.

Europe is since 1984 with the first Framework Plan, in a process of integration even if, today, the FP7 is still only a few % of the European countries R&D investment. Asia is even more diverse and less integrated.
Building an efficient cooperation between so many countries of various level of development around bilateral and progressively multilateral projects is a challenge that ASEPS
is expecting to contribute to meet.