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Boffins unchained

PROMETHEUS BOUND: SCIENCE IN A DYNAMIC STEADY STATE by John Ziman Publisher: Cambridge University Press Price: £16.95

 
By Meera Iyer
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- IMAGINE a rapidly expanding gas confined in a container and subject to immense external pressure. The laws of science tell us that the balance of forces cannot be sustained for long without some transformation taking place in the gas. Now, substitute the gas with the institution monolithically called "scientific research" and you have a fairly accurate picture of the state of science today.

The structure and organisation of scientific research is undergoing drastic changes because of the pressures exerted on it from the outside. This, in essence, is the subject of Ziman's book, which also seeks to explore the nature of the forces on, and the resulting changes in, scientific research. In his words, "Science is reaching its limits of growth."

Two major external stresses occur as a constant theme throughout the book. According to Ziman, ever since its inception in 17th century Europe, modern science has witnessed phenomenal growth at an annual rate exceeding 5 per cent. In the past couple of decades, however, there has been a gradual throttling of the flow of funds into research from governments the world over.

Science functioning within this resource aridity -- what Ziman refers to as "steady state science" -- is in stark contrast to the so-far always-expanding field. But a "steady state" does not imply a static, never-changing situation. Indeed, it is a dynamic, ever-changing situation, akin to a swift, turbulent river which is nevertheless constrained to flow within its banks.

Coupled with the drying up of funds is the greater emphasis now being placed on the "applicability" of research. Scientists are being called upon to undertake problem-oriented research catering to specific societal needs. This inevitably leads to greater allocation of funds to research which holds out promise of utility and material gain. In such a scenario, "the scientist devoted to the traditional enterprise of 'pushing back the frontiers of knowledge' in the 'honest search for truth' simply does not figure in the priority scheme".

These forces have together generated a host of radical changes. Time was when the word "science" conjured up images of absentminded boffins diligently working all their lives on obscure topics, isolated from the materialistic world outside the laboratory. Today's buzzwords -- accountability, evaluation, efficiency, competition, priorities, management -- alien to science till some years ago, have rendered these a thing of the past.

The modern scientist has been hauled out of the comfortable cocoon of assured government funds and thrust head first into a world of cutthroat competition, a world where a top scientist competes with another top scientist for scarce resources to fund equally important research programmes. How many of the research proposals rejected could, if pursued, have resulted in Earthshaking discoveries? The question remains an unsettling one.

Ziman's conclusions are based on experiences centred mainly in the United Kingdom, with a few examples drawn from other European countries and the USA. Much of the analysis is, however, relevant to us in India, where a similar whittling of funds for basic science is being witnessed. There have also been calls in India for more "meaningful" research, while doubts are periodically voiced about the relevance of some academic programmes to our country -- the space research programme being a familiar example. Ziman's contention that all research these days guzzles money, however, definitely does not hold true for India, where research on lowcost technology, for example, is, indeed, lowcost.

The book does not quite provide as "trenchant" an analysis as one would have wished for. Although throughout the book, Ziman harps incessantly on dwindling funds, increasing commercialisation and changing people's perceptions of the role of science, questions on how and why these changes came about are left unanswered. The book tends to put scientists on a pedestal, treating them like superhuman beings whose needs all lesser mortals must cater to. The sometimes deferential attitude towards scientists jars after a point. Scientific enterprise comes across as a line driven only by noble ideals, with no place for the less holy instincts of hunger for money or craving for power. With Ziman's background of a long and distinguished career in the natural sciences, it is perhaps only natural that this bias should creep in.

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