Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Science and development

The relationship between science and development is somewhat more complex than it is usually thought, but that relationship exists, especially since the nineteenth century, and especially during the twentieth century and today. Not all the contribution of science to the development of countries and the welfare of humanity has come hand in hand with industrial innovations. These have been very important, of course, and the example of electricity is glaring. But if today agriculture is capable of feeding more than six billion human beings, it is also a matter of science. And if we have been able to put a lot of infectious diseases at bay, this has been due to science.

It is easy to conclude that, as up to now, science has to play a decisive role in the resolution of many of the great challenges that humanity has before it. Food, health, and access to basic goods and amenities for the entire population are objectives that can not be achieved without a powerful and sustained scientific and technological development. Science will not be the only determining factor, of course, but it will be decisive and its importance will be increasing. When referring to science I will refer to the modality that we have inherited from the so-called "scientific revolution", that intellectual movement that begins with the change of worldview that had its origin in the work of Copernicus and that took its first steps thanks to characters as Kepler and Galileo.

The scientists who led the scientific revolution and most of those who came later were motivated by the desire to know, to understand, they did not dedicate themselves to unraveling the mysteries of nature with the purpose of obtaining something practical, concrete or material from their work. Nor did they disdain it, and several of them were firm defenders of the value of natural philosophy as a source of useful knowledge from that point of view. Moreover, from the beginning of that period, there was a conviction that knowledge was a source of wealth. The one who best formulated that idea was the British thinker and politician Francis Bacon, whose expression " Knowledge is power, not mere argument nor ornament"(Knowledge is power, not simple argument or adornment) has made a fortune. Bacon proposed, in fact, the creation of institutions that propitiate the cultivation of scientific knowledge to start from it, dominate nature, obtain from its wealth and, ultimately, power for the nation. The British Royal Society was founded following, to a large extent, the inspiration of the Baron of Verulam.

But in its early years, despite how spectacular many of its achievements seem today, scientific development did not translate into material benefits. Most of the great innovations that changed the world during the Enlightenment had their origin in the work of artisans and amateur inventors, not in the fruits of science itself.

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