vrijdag 15 juni 2012

Science and Significance

Science can only flourish in freedom: scientists should be allowed to choose their subjects freely, they should be trusted to find the most challenging frontiers of knowledge to be pushed back. Scientific breakthroughs cannot be forced, cannot be achieved ‘on command’. One counter-example sometimes quoted is the development of the atomic bomb. It is true that forces had to be joined at an unprecedented level in order to collect and develop all the knowledge and technology needed for such a gigantic project. But the basic knowledge had been obtained in research purely driven by curiosity, by the desire to push back frontiers. I refer to the discovery of radioactivity, of the atomic nucleus, of fission. Based on the understanding of neutron induced fission the idea of a chain reaction was born. This fundamental knowledge was the basis for the Manhattan project. On a more peaceful note: joining forces on a global level to achieve controlled fusion is a challenge that has been taken up by the ITER project. Also here most of the underlying physics is known, but the technological challenges for achieving energy production on a ‘routine’ basis are still enormous.

Scientific freedom does not mean that funding for scientific projects comes easy. Scientists apply for funding of their favorite projects and only the most excellent of these win grants. It may sound straightforward, but it is at the heart of all successful scientific research systems worldwide. In May 2012 a large gathering of national research organisations (‘councils’)  took place in Washington, hosted by the National Science Foundation, NSF: the North American research funding organisation. During this meeting, where 40 nations, including the Netherlands were represented the Global Research Council was founded. In a careful first step as a ‘virtual organisation’, i.e. an organisation free of overhead (‘bureaucracy’) without a ‘boss’ and with collective ownership. As a first topic of common interest the GRC discussed  ‘merit review’ or ‘peer review’  as the basis for selecting the best research proposals in the granting process. It may not sound very exciting but it is very important to share common values and principles as the basis for (international) cooperation. Because scientific research is, increasingly, a global endeavor. And it is fantastic to see how science is able to transcend political differences. Nations that still have some distance to go before a truly democratic political system is in place, adhere to ‘merit review’ – intrinsically democratic -  as the basis for their national research funding system. Science brings nations together.

Science brings those nations together that have a thriving scientific community. The Netherlands have such a community, strong and excellent but threatened by undernourishment. To the vision of the necessity of a well organised and properly funded scientific  community for addressing scientifically, economically and societally relevant topics I would like to add the vision that such a community adds to our international standing. And to our national pride. A country without significant science will cease to exist.

The Global Research Council will convene again in May 2013, in Berlin. The topics to be addressed, the ‘common values’ to be established are ‘scientific integrity’ and Open Access (to scientific publications and data).  This summit will be commonly organised by the German research council (DFG) and the Brazilian research council (CNPq).

The Netherlands are not automatically invited to the G20, the economic summit, but they are a natural guest and participant in ‘scientific summits’  like the GRC. I will make every effort to keep it that way. What the Euro has a hard time to do, science can achieve easily: science brings nations together!

Jos Engelen
June 15, 2012