Science was never a matter of committee. And even less a matter of agreement. Scientists worth their salt challenge the accepted, negate the comfortable, the acceptable answers. Science is creation: it brings about something that never existed before.
When institutions are set up with the noble goal of stimulating research, an impossible situation is established. In order for such institutions to function, they need rules and procedures. In other words, they are structurally nothing but machines programmed to consistently confirm what is perceived as worthy of public support: “We know what deserves to be funded even before anyone researched it.” When they initiate research programs—in order to justify their existence—they masquerade as originators of science.
Einstein, Newton, Leibniz, C.S. Peirce, would never get a grant from the National Science Foundation. Given the revolutionary nature of their work, it would never have fit the criteria for being funded. In the panel reviews, they would not get enough support from mediocre “peers,” known to be more interested in the game of reciprocating favors than in science. Plus: they committed the fatal sin of carrying out fundamental research. Let’s face it: the current obsession with instant return on investment disqualifies any long-term project from public support. The result is sad. The billions dispensed by bureaucrats posing as arbiters of science is money often thrown away. Wasted. Why? Because we can afford it. In 2007 the country is spending $135 billion for research. The highest number of researchers ever employed (close to 700,000) produces exactly what one can expect from committee-regulated scientific research: mediocrity (and less).
Take to heart Einstein’s words: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” If to you this means that self-perpetuating institutions, like the NSF, NIH, NEA or any other agency (federal or state) are at best clueless in respect to fundamental aspects of science, you are right. But if we stop at criticism, we are stopping a bit too short. Let us free science from self-styled managers of research funds. Dynamic systems are self-organizing systems. Let us make possible the transparent competitive environment that encourages innovation. Make the peer review process as public as applying for public money. Just to start with.
The opportunistic writing of volumes of instructions, based on which even more volumes, of grant applications, are produced, all loaded with politically and legally correct language, is waste of time and energy. Science should not be at the mercy of politics and bureaucracy, and even less of lawyers.
If anyone feels offended by these thoughts, take a deep breath and answer the following question: For all the money spent over these years of prosperity, what are the accomplishments that can compare to Newton’s science, to Leibniz’s, or to Einsteins’s fundamental work. (Feynman comes close!) None of them, very much like Einstein, would have gotten past the reviewing committees. Applicants are asked for evidence of prior work (of other scientists), as though lack of precedent is a capital sin. What about novel research for which there is no prior work? Applicants are supposed to generate data in advance of the research. If we know the results before we start, why bother? Bureaucrats cannot imagine that science is creation. For them, science is what will make headlines. Yes, of you have a Nobel Prize, as relative as even this prize is becoming, your odds of winning the grant lottery (and a reserved parking spot) increase by many orders of magnitude.
To praise the private sector, for being better than the government in stimulating scientific progress, would be nice for a change. In reality, the profit motive, is as good a guide as committees in the selection of science worthy of private support. The fast-buck expectation never recognized fundamental questions worth the support of the insanely rich. (If you have a billion, why do you crave the next billion?) From all forms of research, fundamental research has the highest return. If you do not understand that, you are ignoring what Newton’s physics afforded us, what Einstein’s theory made possible, how Leibniz envisioned the digital age., Mind you, no patents involved.
Give up hope? By no means! Science, not unlike education, is by its nature an optimistic endeavor. It is driven by idealism, and a lot of faith in one’s vision. As we, scientists, continue to practice integrity and full transparency, we might finally be invited, indeed commissioned, to think past the immediate, because the obsession with immediacy is too expensive in the long run. Sooner or later, we will recover from the atmosphere of confused means and methods. Not because someone loves the uncomfortable creative scientist, but because without fundamental research, the bubble of science as immediate remedy for everything will burst (as all bubbles do).
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