Dear Mr. President,
In my opinion, in the future, what will be of major importance is how, in principle, we carry out scientific inquiries—not in which fields we conduct that research.
Let me use a simile to illustrate my point of view. The question as to which fields to concentrate future research on reminds me a bit of the question "What shall we have for lunch?" Everybody must eat—just as every industrial nation needs a research plan. So, why not pick something from the menu: Missions to Mars, the human genome, larger accelerators—there are countless options.
However, when considering what to eat, the customer employs a certain perspective, looking down the aisles past the waiter to the delights behind the kitchen door—the latter being the equivalent of the chest holding the nation's research funds. Let us now reverse the perspective. Looking from the kitchen door down the aisles past the waiter, we see the guest—and it turns out something has become fundamentally wrong with him. The customer is an immensely huge freak, almost immovable due to the large amounts of fat he has already accumulated. The last thing this person needs is yet another meal. Instead, a complete change in attitude towards eating seems imperative, including a new perspective of life and its numerous opportunities, more physical exercise and much less but smarter food intake.
How did the customer grow so fat and cumbersome?
Over the past few decades, research focus was determined by big science projects, beginning with the "Manhattan Project" and continuing with the mission to the moon and the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy. As a consequence of the apparent success of these big science projects, politicians consider focused research to be the best way to achieve clearly defined scientific goals. To continue the restaurant metaphor, uniting a few thousand scientists to strive for a common goal to be reached at a certain time is like asking several outstanding chefs to produce one certain dish—it is almost guaranteed that they will be able to deliver a decent meal. But this is precisely the reason why our patient has become so fat.
For politicians, big science projects can lead to immortality. John F. Kennedy promised a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s and consequently, on July 10, 1969, the nation got what the president had asked for. Administrators also prefer big science projects, because instead of having to split budgets amongst thousands of candidates, they only have to pass the money on to a few large governmental institutions.
Even scientists themselves prefer big science projects. Such projects may bring tremendous power and fame to their leaders; at the same time, they yield a structure that reduces insecurity among followers. For taxpayers, however, big science is often useless at best, and potentially harmful at worst. The "Manhattan Project" led to the biggest single incident of manslaughter in human history, the production of nuclear energy including the disposal of waste and obsolete plants is economically futile, and the moon landing is regarded by many as a cold war propaganda mission with questionable scientific merit. Considering recent big science projects such as super colliders, space stations and Mars missions, the effort and costs to launch them appear to be inversely related to the significance of potential results for the general public. Once again, big science projects made our customer fat and immovable.
What is needed now to get scientific research back on a fast and efficient track again can be termed "lean science". Lean science is slender, quick, efficient and inexpensive. It has the potential of leading to numerous unexpected insights and discoveries. Yet, lean science also holds a number of potential weaknesses. It is more difficult to administrate, the outcome cannot be determined beforehand, and it requires education, patience and tolerance.
Lean science is built upon the concept that all scientific achievements sprang up in the minds of individual people. Thus, providing individual scientists with a hospitable environment in which they can flourish and excel is bound to lead to new discoveries. Some private universities in the United States have already realized this and improved the environment in terms of academic freedom, qualification of staff and quality of physical surroundings.
In the past, great thinkers and artists appear to have come in groups. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not only contemporaries, they also lived in the same city—Athens in Greece. The coincidence of great thinkers continued in history—artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were contemporaries just like painters such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne or poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich von Kleist.
How come there was such an abundance of great thinkers in certain places at certain times, while there seems to be little if any of such excellence around today? I, for one, am utterly convinced that such great minds are indeed around today—they always have been—but those periods in Greece, France and Germany were rare times when the environmental conditions were right for great thinkers to emerge and become visible, speak up and meet each other, exchange ideas and then take them further.
Thus, in my opinion, the first thing to consider when thinking about pressing scientific issues would be to provide the right environmental conditions for scientists to flourish in. That does not mean loads of money. On the contrary, it means respect, freedom of thought, a platform for the exchange of ideas, and a path forward even for the non conformist—since by definition, all great thinkers were non-conformists.
How can we obtain such an environment? We would probably have to overhaul the medieval university system, in particular the obsolete idea of uniting research and teaching, and the mad concept of peer review, in which established authorities judge the merit of competing ideas.
Getting rid of the old-fashioned universities would make room for a new system that could operate similar to Montesquieu's scheme of divided powers in politics (Executive, Legislative, Judicial) to prevent misuse of power. A tri-partite control of powers in academia could consist of research in think tank-equivalent institutions, education in colleges, and administration of quality, funds, jobs, permits, awards and the like in separate institutions. Scientists would only work in one of these units at a time. Early on in their careers, they would be researchers, then teachers and finally administrators—instead of being all at the same time, as it is often the case today. Funding would be provided individually, mainly on the basis of track record and persuasiveness of ideas.
Hence, a long-term strategy is required—much like what is needed to get a fat person thin and healthy. Your country was among the first to fully adopt Montesquieu's scheme of a separation of powers, and today it is the closest working model to the academic system I have introduced here. Thus, you are in an ideal position to make a fat system slender, beautiful, athletic and primed for success!
Discoverer of the lost continent of Atlantis
Author of The Future of the Past