The joy of science

Guest post by Professor Luke Drury 

The great success of the ESOF2012 event (and all credit to the organisers, especially the former Chief Science Adviser, Prof. Patrick Cunningham) stimulated a lot of reaction in the local scientific community and pointed criticism of national science funding policy.

The strength of the reactions suggests that we are touching on some fairly significant issues going well beyond just a dispute about policy. Indeed I believe that this is the case and that the reactions reflect fundamental issues about the nature and understanding of science and the factors that motivate scientists.

At the heart of the problem, it seems to me, is a confusion between science and technology, and the relationship between them. There is a widespread view that science should be supported because it leads to technological innovation and ultimately to job creation. This attitude clearly framed the discourse of the research prioritisation exercise; science is something to be pursued with a view to enabling technologies relevant to our economic recovery.

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“The opportunity to hear directly from some of the most innovative scientists in the world of the exciting break-throughs that are being achieved when excellence in science is driven by curiosity brought home to many of us the narrowness of our local vision.”

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The reason ESOF2012 provoked such a strong reaction within the scientific community is, I believe, that it presented in concentrated form a radically different view of science, one which motivates most scientists, and one which sees it as a creative and cultural activity having much in common with the arts. The opportunity to hear directly from some of the most innovative scientists in the world of the exciting break-throughs that are being achieved when excellence in science is driven by curiosity brought home to many of us the narrowness of our local vision.

Yes, of course it is true that science is closely linked to technology and that science enables technology, but to claim that we should only pursue science to develop technology is a view as unrealistic and futile as to claim that we should only have sex in order to have children.

The reality is we do it to satisfy fundamental human urges. We all have an innate curiosity about the world. We all want to understand how things work and like solving puzzles. To see what nobody has seen before, or to understand a new aspect of how nature works, is immensely satisfying. To deny this and claim that science is merely an enabler of technology for industry is to fundamentally misunderstand what is arguably the greatest creation of the human intellect.

Of course it is difficult and in many cases hard to understand without extensive training and study. Of course it can be challenging. But so is great art, and like great art, great science enriches our humanity by showing us new ways of looking at and understanding the universe.

This has a particular relevance to the on-going debate about the uptake of science subjects by students. To try to motivate them to study science by talking about its benefits to technology and the economy is unlikely to work and, to continue the analogy, is as offputting as talking about the children you plan to have on a first date. The reality is that students want to learn about black holes and the Higgs boson, they are attracted by subjects like astronomy and particle physics, and they want to be taught by people who are working in these `sexy’ fields.

Of course the state has a perfect right to say that it regards certain areas of research as particularly important and to prioritise these. And of course we have limited resources and cannot support everything. But let us also recognise the value and importance of curiosity driven science, the need to support a broad base of research for knowledge, and that science is also a creative cultural activity.

Professor Luke Drury (@Luke_Drury) is Director of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and President of the Royal Irish Academy.

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