Grey suits and lab coats – science is in need of a new renaissance

Grey suits and lab coats – science is in need of a new renaissance

A long time ago (but not in a galaxy far far away) the great human endeavour called science was completely controlled in the western world by the Catholic Church.

The Church dictated the nature of research and set very limiting parameters on what could and could not be investigated by its scholars and scientists.

That science was treated as subordinate to religion and answered to its dictates is quite challenging to conceive in our secular world; a world in which science and religion seem to be wholly unrelated to each other, standing at opposite ends of a spectrum with rationality represented by science at one end and supernatural spirituality represented by religion at its polar opposite. Nevertheless, this was the case for many hundreds of years, and the control of the Church was brutally unyielding as revealed by the treatment of Giordano Bruno (burnt at the stake because he refused to recant truth) and Galileo Galilei (who did recant truth, but lived out his life under house arrest).

We could imagine that secularity has liberated science from such oppressive external binds, setting scientists free to explore life, and the Universe at will. This is however far from the case.

Increasingly, science has fallen under the control of people who wear grey suits – the men and women who control and dictate the financing of science. You might wonder why this is a problem because most of these men and women are experienced scientists, with well-established careers in research behind them. In climbing the ladder of career progression they have swapped their lab coats and laboratories for suits and offices, so surely they are people best placed to know what scientists need to support their aims.

Speak to scientists of the labcoat wearing variety and you will find that this is not the case – and this is in no small way related to the fact that the reputations of the grey suits were forged in their contributions to the scientific paradigm. The result is that their fingerprints are all over the body of knowledge, methodology and style of thinking that we call science today. They have taken the position of primacy over science, occupying the place once held by the Cardinals of the Catholic Church as the arbiters of what can and cannot be explored. And they are just as restrictive on the scientists of this era as in times past – although their methods are based on the rigorous determination of who receives the funding and precisely what for.

Money is usually distributed as grants, awarded to people and their projects, based on strict criteria. Many apply and few are awarded. Applying for money is a complex and difficult process with little chance of success, especially for challenging and unusual research.

This indicates a very serious problem in science today, as it is gripped a new style of conservatism based on a need for “return on investment”. It also provides an insight into how deeply these men and women are invested in maintaining the status quo of the paradigm and preserving the order upon which their reputations were made.

This has turned science into an exercise of compliance with the current paradigm. Ideas that are too far ‘out there’, too radical, too challenging to the prevailing beliefs simply won't get the money.

In the University or government based setting, garnering funding is an excruciatingly bureaucratic process that rolls around every year. Months are dedicated to writing applications for the money to pay for everything, from entire project grants to laboratory funds that put toilet paper rolls in the bathrooms. In that time, little to no research gets done. It is also interesting to note that in Australia 4 out of 5 time consuming grant applications end up being rejected (Phillips 2015)[ii]. In effect, months of research work are delayed for a paperwork intense process that is something of a lottery and yields no results that are of benefit to mankind.

Scientists who work in private enterprise face different, but equally confining dilemmas. Even if their company is lucrative and they do not have to scrounge to stock their laboratories, they will be under considerable pressure to be “productive”, to come up with plenty of lucrative results and quickly. Observation, a cornerstone of great science, is made precisely, and over time, capturing the full story of cause and it effects. It is time that brings understanding, while haste encourages incorrect conclusions to be drawn, like the rushed pistol of an anxious gunslinger shoots wildly and inaccurately. Nowhere is this more apparent than in research related to pharmaceutical drugs whose multiply layered effects are revealed in both the short and long term… Cut the study off too soon and only a part of the very full picture is revealed.

Another fact is that money flows to the people, institutes and laboratories that have a track record of yielding commercially viable results. This on one level makes sense, but not so when we remember that the purpose of science is to help us develop an understanding of all life over which no one has a monopoly.

Success may attract success but the price is that it makes research uni-dimensional, a straight line in a multi-dimensional and spherical world, reducing science to a money making exercise.

This style of funding obliterates different voices that offer unique perspectives. It encourages the pursuit of “safe” projects, after all, who in this world can afford to work for no pay, and run a laboratory with no materials? It is crucial to understand that the most brilliant and revolutionary ideas in science, developed by the greatest mind in the greatest lab will come to nothing when stifled by a lack of financial resources. It is a far safer bet to not stick your neck out too far – but can we call this scientific research such as the greats of the past pursued? It is sad to say that it also encourages corrupt strategies in the desperation to get money (Phillips 2015). Results are subtly or not so subtly manipulated and exaggerated to cast the money garnering successful glow where there is none at all.

What is it that we are funding if conservatism and/or corruption are the result?

Can science under such a modus operandi ever be deemed to be a true investigation into the vast mystery of life, of which we know so little? Or are we content to have it become little more than a comfortable process to yield safe and commercially viable, but unchallenging results using a scientific approach?

In the frustration caused by the problem of insufficient funding we forget that science stands of the limit of all that is known, and asks for us to be adventurous, truly creative and willing to observe, fresh eyed, and open to the wholeness and the mystery of life. How can this be possible when we are constrained by man-made compliances in the scramble for dollars?

Various suggestions have been made to solve the funding dilemma. In an editorial, John Ioannidis (2011)[i] described some potential solutions, but all of them are fraught with problems, the biggest one being the entrenchment of favouritism that is already rife in scientific funding.

As yet, no one has stepped back to look at this problem with revealing eyes. The funding problem really is a reflection of the far deeper one that is blighting science – and that is that science has become overrun with complexity and buried in process. The grey suits have assumed so much power that the lab coats have become voiceless, trapped in compliance to a system that does not work for scientists or for humanity as a whole. This has persisted for so long that it seems the true purpose of science has become lost in all of the paperwork, cynicism and frantic need for results.

The funding problem is something we either continue to fight to no avail, or we could use as an opportunity to explore other possibilities and approaches that are less dependent on finance, bureaucratic systems, and industry with vested interests. If we are willing to liberate ourselves from “the way it is” enough to take such a detour, we might find that we can create something free of the controls that keep science tethered to its tiny little steps in keeping with grey suited rules.

We might re-awaken science to the adventurous, truly creative pursuit it is at heart, based on fresh eyed observation, unbound to styles of thinking and frozen paradigms… open to the wholeness and the mystery of life. A human based science. A new renaissance so to speak.

It is interesting to reflect on the great man Albert Einstein who conducted the most influential thought and mathematical experiments of our Age sitting at his desk in an insurance office, staring at the clock that formed the centerpiece of the city square. No funding, no grants and no grey suits to answer to (although his boss may have had something to say about that!). His greatness was in no small part related to the fact that he was unbounded by convention, rules and funding.

For the remainder of his greatness, it was found not in a grey suit, nor in lab coat, but in his joy at the mystery of life and an unbridled willingness to observe and explore beyond the limits of the known.

Sources:

  • [i]

    Ioannidis, J (2011). Fund people not projects. Nature. 477. pp: 529-531

  • [ii]

    Phillips, N. (2015). How Australian scientists are bending the rules to get research funding. SMH. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/how-australian-scientists-are-bending-the-rules-to-get-research-funding-20150409-1mhrbw.html#ixzz3wWsoo8l7 on 7th Jan 2016.

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