Physics, chemistry, biology and the environmental sciences can deliver wonderful solutions to some of the challenges facing individuals and societies, but whether those solutions will gain traction depends on factors beyond their discoverers’ ken. That is sometimes true even when the researchers are aiming directly at the challenge. If social, economic and/or cultural factors are not included in the framing of the questions, a great deal of creativity can be wasted.
This message is not new. Yet it gets painfully learned over and over again, as funders and researchers hoping to make a difference to humanity watch projects fail to do so. This applies as much to business as to philanthropy (ask manufacturers of innovative crops).
All credit, therefore, to those who establish multidisciplinary projects — for example, towards enhancing access to food and water, in adaptation to climate change, or in tackling illness — and who integrate natural sciences, social sciences and humanities from the outset. The mutual framing of challenges is the surest way to overcome the conceptual diversities and gulfs that can make such collaborations a challenge.
All credit, too, to leading figures in policy who demonstrate their commitment to this multidimensional agenda. And all the more reason for concern when governments show none of the same comprehension.
Such is the case in the United Kingdom. Research-wise, the country is in a state that deserves a bit of attention from others and certainly merits some concern from its own citizens. Its university funders last month announced the results of a unique exercise in nationwide research assessment — the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will have a major impact on the direction of university funding. Almost simultaneously, its government released a strategy document: ‘Our plan for growth: science and innovation’. And in November, its government’s chief science adviser published a wide-ranging annual report that reflects the spirit of inclusiveness mentioned above. Unfortunately, the government’s strategy does not……