Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why I do science

Because of the overwhelming beauty of Nature, the grandeur of it all, the billions of generations of life forms struggling and perishing, the urge to understand, the euphoria of discovering even the most insignificant things, because I am human. It is a matter of aesthetics, emotion, curiosity. I rejoice in every day at work, marvelling at what I see. I have tears in my eyes looking through the microscope. Seriously.

I know exactly why science is in decline when it comes to recruiting students, at least in Norway. It is because of the incredibly misguided campaigns from the State and from the universities: Contribute to the development of new products! Solve the energy crisis! Be useful! But who chooses a career in order to contribute to the national economy?

I am truly privileged to be paid to do science. Sometimes, seeing people who are really useful (like medical personnel), I am slightly embarassed about it. I know, of course, that science has brought us where we are, but I also know that this is not my reason for doing it. I do it for the fun. I don’t think that my work on the shape of squid arm hooks in the Jurassic can possibly lead to the development of any marketable product.

So why should Society pay me? Firstly because scientists are like artists, providing the public with new exciting results that entertain them. Secondly because we constitute a pillar of civilization and culture – no science means collapse to barbary. Thirdly (and only thirdly) because there could conceivably (but unprobably) be some profitable product coming out of it. This last aspect has been totally oversold, to the detriment of recruitment . The enormous interest in science among the general public is not because of, but in spite of the utilitarian arguments made by our government (and some scientists).

If society wants to recruit scientists, here is the simple recipe: Just show young people what we do. I work with magnificent things, travel around the world, camp in the Arctic, rapell abysmal cliffs, use equipment that would fit in a Star Trek movie, teach brilliant students, have my office in the most beautiful spot in Oslo, and enjoy an incredible freedom.

These are dangerous thing to say. In the current climate of science policy, they may damage my prospects for funding. But in the longer term, a change in the understanding and appreciation of science will be absolutley necessary for it to prevail.

According to legend, Euclid was once asked by a prospective student to demonstrate the use of geometry. Euclid then told his slave to “Give him two pence so that he may make a profit of what he learns”.  This was the spirit of the time. It was the basis of our civilization.