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 Has science reached its limits of growth?  

I recently re-read ” Prometheus Bound: Science in a dynamic steady state” written in 1994 by John Ziman, and was intrigued how much the context has changed in 30 years, yet the substance hasn’t.

John Ziman had a distinguished career in the natural sciences. In Prometheus Bound (ISBN 0 521 43430 0), he wrote about the problems scientists have with governments, administrators etc.  His preface starts:

 “Science is reaching its ‘limits to growth’. It is expected to contribute increasingly to national prosperity, yet national budgets can no longer support further expansion to explore tempting new re-search opportunities, by larger research teams, equipped with increasingly sophisticated apparatus. As a result, science is going through a radical structural transition to a much more tightly organized, rationalized and managed social institution. Knowledge-creation, the acme of individual enterprise, is being collectivized.

This transition is pervasive, interlocking, ubiquitous and permanent. It affects the whole research system from the every day details of laboratory life to the politics of national budgets. Changes in one part of the system, such as the abolition of academic tenure, have repercussions elsewhere, for example in the commercial exploitation of scientific discoveries. A new policy language of ‘accountability’, ‘evaluation’, ‘input and output indicators’, ‘priority-set-ting’, ‘selectivity’, ‘critical mass’, etc. has become commonplace throughout the world, from Finland to Brazil, from Poland to New Zealand, from the United States to Papua New Guinea. Indeed, science is becoming a truly international enterprise, organized systematically on a global scale.”

I am sure there are many people who could write this in 2013 – and lament that we may not have made much real progress in understanding and practice of public policy around science and technology.  But we have made enormous inroads into our understanding of the world and our ability to put science to work over the last 30 years.

 In a real sense we have risen to the challenge set by Ziman when he elegantly posed:

“Many scientists and scholars look back regret-fully to a more relaxed and spacious environment for academic research. But nostalgia is a fruitless sentiment. What all scientists know is that science cannot thrive without social space for personal initiative and creativity, time for ideas to grow to maturity, open-ness to debate and criticism, hospitality towards innovation, and respect for specialized expertise. The real question is not whether the structural transition is desirable, or could have been avoided: it is how to reshape the research system to fit a new environment without losing the features that have made it so productive in the past.”

The challenge is still relevant in 2013 and will remain for some time.

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