Jan Woerner's Blog

Science, science management, science policy… Part 2

15. October 2013, 12.19, Jan Wörner, 2 Comment/s
In the previous blog entry about various aspects of research and development, I attempted to cast some light on the different roles of science, science management and science policy. Let us assume for reasons of simplicity (and quite contrary to reality) that all protagonists involved behave in their respective fields of responsibility in such a way that, ultimately, science operates optimally. In a slightly liberal interpretation of what Saint-Exupéry wrote: 'Science is not there to foresee, but to enable.' (The original quote by Saint-Exupéry is: Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it.). But this is by no means the end of the journey in practical terms.

Engaging in research becomes particularly difficult when the plan is to step into new and unknown areas. It all starts with an idea that frequently and fortunately diverges from the beaten track. There is a tendency to describe the nature of this idea as 'disruptive' because it 'interferes' with the prevailing opinion. The description of Earth's geometry, the movements of bodies in the Solar System and the science of genetics all had this common denominator.

All great inventions also have disturbing or at least unsettling effects. With the benefit of hindsight, we are all quick to appreciate previous accomplishments, considering them more or less self-evident. Whether it was Faraday with the discovery of electrical induction or Einstein with his revolutionary theory of relativity, used today as a matter of course to ensure the precision of satellite navigation – time and again these ideas were initially viewed with suspicion or, in the worst case scenario, considered superfluous. This fact presents a special threat to groundbreaking research in our bargain basement society, with its utilitarian focus. Are we willing to follow great minds, to invest money when, like George Stephenson, inventor of the steam locomotive, they proceed according to the motto: "I can't tell you how I'll do it, but I can tell you I will do it"?

There is a willingness expressed on all sides to support innovative ideas, but all too frequently, the tide turns to "We have never done things this way!” or “Everything's fine the way it is. Where is the need for change?" in the face of practical considerations. This kind of expression is voiced in all three areas – science, science management, science policy – for each respective field, although the greatest risk for the future of success is found in the present. Or put a little differently: complacency is extremely dangerous! It is imperative that we give disruptive thoughts time and space. 'Out of the box' thinking must not culminate in a discussion on how big the box should be, its material properties or other qualities.

And let it be said to all those who like swimming against the current: we cannot expect the water to suddenly change its course and we should not be taken by surprise if a great many people end up swimming towards us! We need personal dedication and endurance to allow science to crack the hardest nuts. It is unfortunate in practice that as soon we have broken down one wall we just find ourselves in the adjacent 'cell'…

So the motto must be: Don't give up!

Image top and centre
Research in the arc-heated wind tunnel at DLR in Cologne – model in simulated Martian atmosphere. Credit: DLR,
CC-BY 3.0.

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