The Case for Science

My notes from Chapter 2 of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review.

Chapter 2 of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review makes the case for discovery science. There are no recommendations emerging from this chapter. Instead, it is argued that social, health, and economic benefits accrue from the pursuit of basic knowledge. There are a few choice quotes along the way that bring the issues into focus. There is an important problem, however, that I think the panel has overlooked.

Science has transformed humanity for the better, a point that is articulated particularly well in the Review. The panel points out that when the London Royal Society was formed in 1660,

“…the average life expectancy across Europe was under 45 years of age, only a tiny fraction of the population could read and write, poverty and hunger were endemic, open sewage ran in the streets, child mortality ranged from 25 to 50 per cent, and misery was rampant. In less than 20 generations, the relentless quest for deeper understanding of human and non-human nature has radically changed the world. Every physical thing we may be tempted to take for granted – from automobiles to antibiotics, from calculators to CAT scans, and from skyscrapers to smartphones – is based on technology enabled by multiple fields of basic and applied science. Everything else that matters – concepts such as democracy, equity, universal suffrage and education, the rule of law, and freedom of assembly and speech – has become part of our lives mainly because of humanistic inquiry and insights from the social sciences.”

Citing the work of economic historian Joel Mokyr, the panel wrote that the transformation of society by science in the 17th century was enabled by

“… a growing belief that progress was possible – that the broad human condition could be improved by convergent insights from scientific research and social inquiry.”

The panel argues that continuing benefits will require ongoing research, saying

“[The] fruits of innovation do not materialize out of thin air… They grow out of the wellspring of knowledge, ideas, and insights that originate largely, albeit not exclusively, from basic research.”

It seems to me, however, that the public’s faith in shared progress through science has been badly shaken in recent decades. The rise of science denial – especially with respect to climate change, evolution, vaccines, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and fluoridation – is not discussed in Chapter 2 of the Review. Denialism is creating conditions antithetical to those that Mokyr identified as the precursors to progress, and has enabled politicians to broadly attack the scientific enterprise.

Burgeoning inequality in recent years has compounded the problem: the economic benefits of innovation are increasingly seen to be accumulating at the top. Continued innovation promises to displace many workers (read, for example, The Economist’s Special Report on Artificial Intelligence, especially part three on The Impact on Jobs). The Review assumes that the fruits of science will continue to be widely distributed. This is not guaranteed, and recent trends are cause for concern.

I imagine that the panel might respond that social science – equally part of their review – could be expected to address the issues outlined above, and I would agree. My concern is that the public being asked to foot the bill right now might not see it this way.

The panel does outline some important ongoing responsibilities for scientists and politicians:

“If Canada is to thrive in the 21st century, our capacity to formulate imaginative, innovative, and evidence-based public policy must be second to none. Policy-making, we understand, involves not just evidence, but values and circumstances. Assessing the relevant trade-offs will be the responsibility of our elected representatives. However, it is very much the responsibility of the research community to generate the relevant evidence, and the reciprocal responsibility of decision-makers to ensure that they have the tools and resources to do so.”

Getting science policy right will be important. To wit, the panel has a warning for those who suppose that redirecting funding for basic research into innovation can shortcut the process:

“Major breakthroughs in basic research are frequently the result of serendipitous discoveries that are not foreseeable at the outset. Indeed, setting targets for the social or economic impacts of basic research reflects a profound misunderstanding of its contribution. If the results could reasonably be known in advance, the activity is not really research. Simply put, neglecting basic research owing to impatience or uncertainty contradicts much of the historical evidence.”

Overall, the panel makes a strong case for investment in fundamental science. Ongoing effort is needed, I think, to communicate this vision to Canadians, and to ensure that the benefits are broadly shared.