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Freethinkers or Society’s Handymen: The Future of Science

Terugblik en index curiosity drivenCuriosity Driven or Application Oriented Science? | Lunch discussion with chemist and dean Lutgarde Buydens and mathematician Klaas Landsman
Thursday 2 November 2017 |Radboud Reflects Maand van de Ethiek 
@ Faculty of Science

On Tuesday 2nd of November, a lecture hall at the Huygens building of the Radboud University Nijmegen filled with scientists, students and other seekers of knowledge, who were willing to trade their lunch break for a lecture. The lecture in question was the kick-off of Radboud Reflects’ ‘Maand van de Ethiek’ at the Faculty of Science. The topic at stake: should scientific research be motivated by intrinsic curiosity or by the urge to resolve social issues and practical problems? Under the guidance of moderator Luca Consoli, assistant professor of Philosophy and Science Studies, a heated debate erupted after two Radboud professors provided seemingly opposing arguments. Klaas Landsman, professor of Mathematics and author of the popular science book Requiem for Newton (2005), argued in favor of curiosity as the most important principle to drive science, while Lutgarde Buydens, dean of the Faculty of Science and professor of Analytic Chemistry, was in favor of a stronger orientation towards application.

Solving society’s problems

After labelling most of the research performed at the Faculty of Science as primarily curiosity driven, professor Lutgarde Buydens pleaded for more consideration of the possible applications of research. Whilst purely fundamental, curiosity-driven science is important in her view, she insisted that scientists should not look away from the current and future problems of society. Take overpopulation and global warming; these are problems that require solutions as soon as possible, before it is too late. Buydens then made a large claim: “As scientists, it is our moral obligation to tackle future societal problems.”

In order to do this, a combination of curiosity driven and application oriented research is necessary, according to Buydens. We need application oriented research to solve the problems society has right now, whilst we must retain our curiosity towards the fundamental aspects that are involved in these problems. As an example of this, she pointed at the research of Louis Pasteur, which was aimed at solving a societal problem through researching fundamental questions. In Buydens’ view, the Faculty of Science should try to emulate this example: “We should follow the drive to do and mean something for society, not only to fulfill our curiosity.”

Von Humboldt’s legacy

After Buydens’ plea for more focus on application, Klaas Landsman took the stage. He invoked the legacy of Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin, who stated that ‘Einsamkeit und Freiheit’ are the key principles of a university. Shortly put, these involve that universities should focus on the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and should steer clear of state intervention and focus on application. Curiosity driven research therefore is, or should be, the ‘ideal’ of a university, according to Landsman.

To prove his claim that the ability to do curiosity driven research is paramount, Landsman then invoked several examples that showed its promise. Amongst others, he mentioned electricity, which was regarded as a ‘gentleman’s hobby’ for a long time, and the classical computer, which stems from fundamental research in logic and mathematics. “Curiosity driven research has been the ultimate source of technological progress”, according to Landsman.

Landsman ended his argument with a warning: curiosity driven science is under threat. The Dutch government is forcing collaborations between research institutes and industry, through instruments such as ‘Top sectors’. Landsman sees this as a large problem: “The university is the only place where there is curiosity driven research, and the university is the last resort to protect it.” According to him, the debate should therefore not be about curiosity driven versus application oriented research, but about academic freedom, and the fact that the Dutch government is interfering with it.

Is our house on fire?

During the following discussion, members of the audience showed remarkably strong preferences for both sides of the debate, leading to various passionate attacks on the positions proposed by the two professors. For example, Professor Klaas Landsman was called out on the fact that he seemed to ignore the current problems of society, and that he preferred to ‘live in the past’. He reacted by saying that the best way to solve these problems is not to ‘steer science’, but to trust curiosity-driven research: “Maybe 1% of research will solve our problems, but in order for these solutions to come up, we must fund all 100% of science, not only that research of which we currently believe that it will provide solutions.” In reaction, Buydens sneered: “But if your house is on fire, there are more pressing matters. We can’t wait for possible results in thirty years, we need solutions now.”

Similarly, Buydens was attacked on her ‘lax attitude’ towards government interference in scientific research. She replied that while the government might control the money flow, the curiosity and drive are still inner: the government can’t force scientists to do research they don’t want to do. The audience’s response was fierce: “But that is exactly what is happening!” Yet, a common ground could be found: the government should not get control of what scientists can and cannot study. Buydens agreed with Landsman that freedom of thought is non-negotiable: “If you feel that you are forced by the government, something is wrong.” She continued by stating that it is up to scientists to take matters into their own hands: “Scientists should take the lead in deciding what research is funded and what isn’t.”

In his concluding statement, Luca Consoli provided a take home message: “Our moral obligation as scientists to help society also involves taking the lead in discussing what science should be about. We should speak up for ourselves.” Extrapolating from the proceedings at the lecture, it seems that this will not be too much of a problem.

This report was written by Freek Oude Maatman, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.

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