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Guest Editorial: “From Blind Copying (bcc) to Basics (abc) in Science.” -Ilan Kelman, CICERO, Oslo, Norway. February 8, 2011

Ilan Kelman

Science has become mired in blindness: it is dominated by bcc representing “blind copying”. That is, blindly copying what has gone before without innovative thought. In science today, bcc means Bureaucracy, Corporatism, and Conservatism.

Bureaucracy. Science is being bogged down in interminable reporting, complicated paperwork systems, and paperwork for paperwork’s sake. Rather than scientists, senior researchers are morphing into bureaucrats. That does not mean reducing accountability or project management. Those are feasible without snowing people under with paper and checklists. Science is becoming increasingly bureaucratic without any increase in accountability.

Corporatism. Political leaders are heard today claiming that all money invested in science must have a business payback. Scientists are pummelled with corporatespeak such as visions, stretch goals, identities, and objectives. Those are useful approaches for structuring thoughts in certain contexts. They cannot apply to all contexts, especially exploratory research where the pathways and outcomes are not known–cannot be known–beforehand. If all research pathways and outcomes were known in advance, then we would not need research.

Conservatism. Increasing expectations from science focus on outputs, such as counting the number of peer reviewed papers and ticking off the list of deliverables. Any attempt to take a risk is discouraged because, heaven forbid, results might not be publishable. New case studies can be nixed because it is not known what is there–which is precisely why those case studies should be researched. A culture of fear prevails that we might actually learn something different from what we expected in the first place.

How could the bcc situation improve? We must move from the bcc of blind copying to the “back to basics” of abc. What is the basic purpose of science? To search for explanations and to gain knowledge. abc achieves that through Action, Boldness, and Curiosity.

Action. Much of science plods along, week to week, hoping for a breakthrough or to find something publishable. That should not preclude excitement, dynamism, and acting on desires to know and learn more. No punishment should exist for taking action to pursue a query where potential exists for important results, even if that means deviating from the original plan or using the assigned budget for other activities. Note that action does not necessarily mean activism. The action can be along the lines of simple scientific enquiry, following a lead that appeared even if not listed in the initial project plan.

Boldness. Science should not be afraid to take risks. Risking a project or part of a budget on a daring move, an odd case study, or a unique situation has the potential for immense gains. Even if 99% of bold decisions to strike out in new directions fail, the 1% success rate will pay back dividends that are orders of magnitude greater than the expense. The evidence? The transistor. The discovery of pulsars. The proof of the CFC-induced ozone hole. Amongst many others.

Curiosity. Scientists these days frequently seem scared to ask deep questions. For example, challenge a leading scientist in climate change to prove assertions made and the consequence can be ostracism from the clique along with personal attacks. Dare to pursue a topic because it interests you and the consequence is being hauled before bureaucratic superiors to justify your use of time and budget. Try to shift a budget line to take advantage of recent developments and the consequence is being labelled a troublemaker by the granting agency who must use time (and hence money) to determine whether or not to approve such a small change. Investigation for “sheer curiosity”–just because it is there–is frowned upon. What is the point of research if we cannot follow the tendrils of our minds?

Science is being killed by blind copying. We are losing creativity and innovation. Society loses in the long-run by having fewer explanations and less knowledge to apply for a better world. Where are the scientific visionaries and leaders today who can bring science back to life–back to basics?

“The people are revolting. And rightly so.” Mickey Glantz. February 1, 2011.

“The people are revolting. And rightly so”
Mickey Glantz. February 1, 2011.

RichManPoorMan
A recent ad in a Time Magazine caught my eye. It was a one-page ad to encourage more people to subscribe to TIME. The page contained a photo of a farmer somewhere in the Chinese countryside using a one-tine ox-drawn plow to prepare the soil for planting. Passing high above him and the field he was plowing there was a bridge under construction. The caption on the photo was a play-on-words, a riddle really, “What happens when China catches up with China?”

The ad’s caption raises lots of questions, for those who took the time to think about the underlying messages sparked, as well, by the images of both farmer & bridge. The ad provides an interesting jumping off point for discussion not only about the benefits of economic development for the well being of people and for the environment, symbolized by the bridge, but also the drawbacks of such development, symbolized by the farmer, the plow, and the ox.

The TIME magazine one-page ad refers to the current and apparently growing gap in China between the country’s haves, especially the super affluent, and its have-nots, especially those living in abject poverty. With all the news about China’s prosperity, accumulation of dollars, and record-breaking statistics (e.g., the most number of Ferraris in the world have been sold in Shanghai!), the gap between the richest and the poorest segments of society has been growing. The Chinese government noted this concern in 2005: “Even as some Chinese, particularly in the big cities, are able to earn more, many others, notably those in rural areas and the less developed areas of Western China, are being left behind. The result is a widening gap between rich and poor that is attracting growing comment from top officials.” (www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/050929/29world.htm)

China’s population is approaching 1.4 billion inhabitants. Many have done very well with China’s booming economy as a result of economic liberalization and continued future expansion looks like it will be quite robust. There is even talk that the 21st century will be China’s century as an economic power.

The total population of China, which is like the denominator in a fraction, is much greater than the much smaller percentage of that population can be considered as the “haves” which can be represented as the fraction’s numerator. What would happen if the proportion of the population of “haves” were to sharply increase? The denominator is soooo big that it will not be possible to bring the numerator anywhere near it: hence, a gap. And that gap between richest and poorest has been acknowledged by china as increasing. Even as the numerator gets bigger as more people prosper so too does the denominator increase as the population grows.

Of course, the have nots of the population hope that their economic situation will improve over time. The other part of the population is weighted toward the poor. The bottom half of the country strives for what the upper half has in terms of quality of life: better food stuffs, more cars on the roads, an increase in air conditioning, and other attributes associated with an improved quality of life. If the “have nots” are successful, China will have to contend with increasingly gridlocked roadways, air pollution, and a continued dependence on the use of fossil fuels, increasing need for food and water supplies, and so forth.

As suggested at the outset, the question TIME raised also lent itself to the following question: What happens when China fails to catch up with China? In other words, what will happen if in the midst of growing affluence by a segment of the Chinese population, the poorer segments of the Chinese population remain poor? Government and Communist Party leaders officially acknowledge that the tens of thousands of protests each year by farmers and workers are on the rise. Chinese leaders are well aware of the potential downsides of rapid economic development and economic liberalization, and they continue to seek to bring about “social harmony.” But rapid economic growth continues and the gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside continue to grow. China, however, is not alone in this regard. In the reverse of the TIME question “What happens when China catches up with China,” the word ‘China’ could be replaced by the many scores of countries for which the question(s) remain relevant.

Most recently, the multi-decade rule of the Tunisian President Ben Ali came to an abrupt end by the desperate act of a poor, young, 26 year old Tunisian, Mohammed Bouazizi, who was just trying to support his family of eight by selling produce from an unlicensed cart. His cart was confiscated and a policewoman spit on him in a dispute over not having a license for his cart. His self-immolation in front of police headquarters sparked a revolution. That revolution has since sparked similar popular uprisings against other leaders in the Middle East, most vividly in Egypt and in Yemen. So the question remains a useful one to keep in mind for any country, however seemingly stable their government might be, “What happens if Country X does not catch up with Country X?”

Many dictatorial leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere are probably not sleeping well these days. And rightly so.

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