We invited Pierre Laszlo (a chemist at the University of Liegi) to the Campus as a Visiting Professor after reading his article in "La Recherche", an excellent French scientific journal. In his article, Laszlo dealt with a very difficult and topical subject in the field of scientific research which we are convinced, however, is little known among the wide public of the outsiders. With a very effective definition, he calls it "conceptual space pollution". In short: a remarkable amount of scientific works is the result of criteria and processes that do not belong to the need to investigate natural phenomena or the creation of scientific instruments. We will not tell you what processes are mentioned. Laszlo describes them with great exactness. We asked him if he thought it would be of interest to enlarge his reflections when interpreting the role that the great modern machine of the means of communication, including specialized media, may play in making the whole matter more complicated. Here is his first "conference", as you will see, at the end of the debate, Laszlo asks us to hold another one. That is right, a debate. We have already asked for contributions and would, of course, be pleased to receive other, spontaneous ones.
The Pinetree and the Molecule
The edge of the forest is close enough for a good look. Each tree is unique. The pine I am examining differs from its neighbours. This individual tree flaunts its own mortality. Some of its branches are dead, their needles have become brown and sparse. But any tree is not only constrained into immobility. Its response to the whiffs of wind is a dance. It forms a paean to the environmental pressures that have molded the evolution of this particular species.
These are some of the remarks that cross the mind upon just looking at a tree. There is another remark, and I'll come to it in due time. Prior to that, I want to share a similar emotion, with an aesthetic and intellectual nature as well. I am now looking at a page from a scientific magazine, such as the standard-bearers of the chemical profession, the Journal of the American Chemical Society or the international edition in English of Angewandte Chemie. The chemical reaction shown here is so incredibly elegant, so beautifully designed, so artfully crafted and efficient! Is not synthesis of this beautiful target molecule, a complex natural product, admirably conceived, using but sparingly its chemical means and its successive stages? Is it not dead on target in like manner as a resolute chess player, intent on winning the game, who anticipates future moves of his opponent, whose behaviour he predicts and whose reactions he forecasts - if I may pun on the word "reaction" with its dual meaning, as in action-reaction, and as in chemical reaction.
The two beauties, that of the tree and that incarnate in the chemical paper, strike me as equivalent. Who can claim that the one, from nature takes precedence on the other, man-made, or vice-versa? It would be an anthropocentric fallacy to privilege the latter. We do so however, routinely and mindlessly, when we reduce millions (billions?) of Scandinavian and Canadian pines to pulp in order to produce the paper for our publications (this is the remark promised earlier).
Of course, for man to destroy nature in the name of improved or increased humanity sounds like a valid motive. But who are we? Should we tolerate global arboricide in order to nurture research work entirely devoid of originality? Should we favor imitative research and the bureaucratization of scientific discovery at the cost of creative research? I submit that only the latter, original science, is enough justification for cutting all those trees.
Some additional explanation is required, since readers of this piece are not necessarily scientists. The phrase "creative research" sounds redundant. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid coining the term when dealing with the increasing and worrisome bureaucratization of scientific research. Some of the main causes of mimetic conformity and of self-censured creativity are:
- mission-oriented research, stemming from the military necessities of World War II, and that led through the visionary "Link to the Frontier" report by Vannevar Bush to the setting-up in the US of research universities, as we know them nowadays;
- funding agencies, such as the European Commission in Brussels or the National Science Foundation in Washington, and other national administrations, rely necessary on peer review of research proposals. With time, such evaluation has undergone inflation: at present, a reviewer kills an application from a colleague if he or she does not grade it "excellent" but only "very good". It is considered utterly tactless to even hint that a contribution might be too flimsy, too slender a move in the general advancement of learning;
- social promotion through scientific research has been responsible for the present existence of a lumpen proletariat of science workers, recruited from developing countries, and slaving for a doctoral degree in the laboratories of the economically more advanced countries. Our intellectual equals, they suffer from poor initial training in general, at the secondary and undergraduate levels. In this situation, most laboratories deliberately, because they need the manpower, devalue the degree. They turn themselves into Ph.D.-churning factories. And the funding agencies favor such an unfortunate trend by equating quality with quantity: quality of science being assumed to be proportional to the number of bodies in a research group and to the number of research papers published by a given laboratory;
- another sociological pattern bears heavily on the present situation: some young scientists quickly understand that, in the present circumstances, a career in the lab is a very hard proposition. They move to science administration. Because their experience of science has been too short, they are prone to behave as technocrats, i.e. as people justifying their role by demanding regular written reports and financial statements;
- one should mention a political factor: supranational bodies operate under the pressure of national lobbies. Their management is multinational and plurilingual, which is a good thing in the absolute. However, it leads to monstruosities. Success of an application to the EC hinges on the rather artificial pairing of academic and industrial labs, of groups from countries of the North and countries of the South, a bureaucratic hurdle race akin to a kafkaesque run through a maze.
- proliferation of commercial periodicals, whose subscriptions drain the money of the already poor research libraries. As a consequence, however mediocre the work, it gets published nevertheless. Some scientists, furthermore, do away with the deontological rule regarding authorship: anyone signing a publication ought to be able, alone, to present it and to defend it.
This is enough. I have no desire to be exhaustive, and this is a rather sad survey. We can sum it up with two distinct metaphors: bad money chases away the good; our joint intellectual space has become highly polluted.
I have hinted at the strangling of creative research through proliferation of imitative research. Technocratic science managers want their work cut out for them, and they force living science into conformity to their organizational charts.
Is my presentation too unidimensional? Should I have referred to the stifling of genuine creators by the orthodoxy of official science? The latter, let me hasten to say, is a myth, carried by the media for its romantic content. It has no basis in reality.
In fact, scientists are very fond of dissenters and of marginals. They pamper anything that evokes originality and that is outside of the mainstream. No truly creative mind is ever ignored. Both Alfred Wegener (of continental drift fame) and Gregor Mendel (the father of genetics) were known and esteemed by their contemporaries. Barbara McClintock, a loner if there was one, did work renowned in its time and appreciated. The same goes for Stanley Prusiner: we knew for sure for the last dozen years that he was about to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Coming to the end of this paper, and well aware of its rather negative spirit, let me express the hope that the editors of Campus will allow me to write a part II, which by contrast would embody a set of constructive proposals.
All rights reserved © Pierre Laszlo 1997