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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Without science there is no progress


In the #sinCiencia campaign that takes place these days in different media on the internet, different arguments are advanced. The most frequently refers to the relationship between science and health, and between science and quality of life, or science and progress.

The relationship between scientific research in the biomedical field and health is evident. It is also what is between research in other fields of knowledge, typical of physics and chemistry, and technological development. In short, scientific research, and increasingly, is the condition for significant progress to occur in key areas for human well-being.

And yet, I believe that many of these arguments, as they are formulated implying a direct and relatively close relationship in time between research and technological and health development, are not the most adequate to raise awareness among the population in general of the interest of the science and that it is worth investing in it. I will explain below where I see the weaknesses of those arguments.

In the first place, there is a disparity of opinions about whether or not there is a relationship between investments in science and competitiveness. There are important specialists in development economics who argue that there is no solid evidence of that relationship, and I suspect they are right. To explain why, we should dive into the stormy waters of the development economy, and I will not do it, because it is not my specialty. However, I will summarize the argument I have read there: competitiveness, even when linked to innovations, depends more on factors related to trade (freedom of movement of goods and ideas), institutional environment (favorable or not to risk) and incentives, rather than policies aimed at promoting R & D and innovation.

Another weakness of the majority argument is that they easily lead to proposing that basic research be ended, because if we investigate to generate wealth, then we should park or directly abandon an investigation that can be very expensive and we do not know when it will be obtained. benefit, where it will be obtained and, not even if it will be obtained. The American tea party promoted this position in the elections to the Congress and Senate last year, and I have no doubt that it would be a very appealing argument for the anti-enlightened sectors that abound in the Spanish political and media cavern.

With the arguments that defend the relevance and convenience of investing in science to live better, there is a third additional risk. It is the recourse to Unamuno "that they invent." And it would be a solid argument. Let's see. If it is accepted that each country has its sources of wealth and that it makes use of these sources to progress, depending on its own aptitudes, there would not be too much difficulty in proposing that in the same way that the Norwegians have oil, the Americans technology and software, the Italians design and Brazilians fruits, there will be those who propose that Spain could exploit tourism and solar energy, for example, and that if it manages to do that well enough and at a low price, the problems would be solved [yes I know I exaggerate, but this it is being proposed in fact in low-fat version] In other words, what is suggested is that we dispense with knowledge that is not directly related to our own "natural" sources of wealth.

And my fourth reason against "utilitarian" arguments in favor of science has to do with the fact that their abuse, in my opinion, has discouraged interest and scientific vocations among young people during the good years, and It has undermined the foundations of genuine discourse in favor of science. For reasons of space, I will omit additional explanations and refer the reader to future writings in which I will develop this idea in more detail.

The practical usefulness of science should not be denied, of course not, nor the convenience of betting on it if the intention is to develop economic sectors that are intensive in scientific knowledge. And of course, it is clear that certain developments and innovations would never happen if certain scientific fields were not cultivated. But the supreme argument in favor of science, in my opinion, is another and much more complex.

The scientific activity, in general, and the scientific culture that emanates from it, contribute to creating a climate of excellence that spreads to the whole of the social body. That climate ends up coming, as by osmosis, to all sectors and activities and promotes that things become "good". The main mechanism of dissemination is training, and more specifically, the university level. University education has to be nourished, not only in the scientific fields, of research, and thus incorporates the critical component that should truly qualify university graduates. This critical component is an indispensable condition of good high-level professional performance and, therefore, of the good functioning of society as a whole. And that good functioning ends up having positive effects in all social areas,

But there is more. Science has certain values, which are what have made it a method of acquiring such powerful knowledge. Democratic societies share those same values ​​with science. And they share, in a certain way, their way of progressing. These values ​​(optimism, tolerance, skepticism, and humility) are the values ​​that adorn democratic societies; they are essential for scientific progress and for social progress, and their cultivation through science has systemic effects. In Popper's words, both in the open society and in scientific development, the conjecture-refutation sequence has turned out to be extraordinarily fruitful. It is in science; We already know that we are dedicated to it and we have seen how some notions (sometimes ours) have been refuted and replaced by others.

It is not by chance that the societies that have made the greatest effort in the development of science are the ones that work best. And it should be noted that the fertile effort, which has been successful, is that which is maintained over time. Therefore, reductions in scientific activity, although they are intended to be only transitory, can have devastating effects on the system and on the medium and long-term development of a country.

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