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In Favor of Pure Science

  • Rome
  • 10 February 2023

        The conference is part of the broader “Aspen Global Initiative in Favor of Pure Science”, the result of the first-ever collaboration of all the Aspen Institutes around the world. The meeting set itself the goal of focusing attention on future attempts to raise awareness among public and private decision makers and the entire civil society of the need for increased financial and human investments on behalf of pure science.

        The immense changes ushered in by the pandemic and climate change have underscored both the strong link between technology and science as well as the fact that only a fine line separates pure and applied science. Pure science is that spurred by curiosity and those “chance” discoveries that gave rise to the application of scientific method; and that application is what leads to research in a specific technology or product. Since it is impossible in today’s world to depend solely on skills and technical knowhow, it is important to develop the powers of critical and creative thinking along with a well-rounded capacity for communication – instruments offered by the humanistic sciences.

        From the political standpoint, the approach to investments in research needs to change. Indeed, although the pandemic brought out the need for long term vision, the difficulty lies in convincing politicians, investors and business people to invest money in pure science when technology offers immediate concrete solutions results. Nevertheless, more investments must be channeled into research, starting from the assumption that science and scientific progress are a communal asset. In the public realm and at transnational level, the European Commission has launched some new undertakings with the Horizon 2021-2027 program, which stands on three pillars:  excellence, global challenges and European industrial competitiveness and innovation. The first pillar refers specifically to pure science, the third to applied science.

        Pure science’s timeframes do not dovetail neatly with corporate ones; yet, investing in knowledge at least as much as in applied research fuels human progress. Another proposal is to incentivize public/private partnerships, and it is equally important to speed up and streamline bureaucratic procedures.

        As important as investments and financing for pure research are, researchers must be able to work unencumbered by commercial, profit-based concerns. Research needs to be conducted in an environment of “extreme” freedom from interference, with the exception of peer reviews; a principle that naturally includes rules and rigor as well as due consideration of ethical implications.

        In the final analysis, future efforts on behalf of pure science should be mindful of the following:

        • That investments must be stable and flexible; it is impossible to undertake research within the constraints of term financing since research is liable to develop along a variety of paths and cannot be chained to a fixed deadline.
        • Holding on to young people is crucial, since they are the ones that come up with new ideas; scientific research must be capable of adequately compensating them for their efforts in order to avoid their leaving universities and research centers to work for industry, effectively abandoning pure for the more remunerative applied sciences, which happens all too often.
        • Spreading a culture of science, one prompted by doubt and that proceeds by asking the right questions.
        • School training and education: creating and spreading scientific practice from the earliest school years, generating a science narrative in school curricula aimed at triggering children’s enthusiasm for discovery and raising their awareness of science’s role in transforming reality; building, among other things, a cultural basis for understanding scientific progress and science itself.
        • A “science village”, whose inhabitants – scientists, policy makers, educators, developers, private industry, communicators – are open to exchange and the intermingling of the sciences.
        • The use of ad hoc instruments for communicating science – documentaries, biopics on prominent personalities, partnerships between the world of science and the media – capable of contributing to the creation of a science culture.

        To conclude, two additional perspectives, the first of which is philosophical in nature: in the era of post-modernity, in which the categories of true and false become invalid because they respond to the criteria of persuasion, taste and rhetoric, science’s being born from an idea of true and false means that it still uses past, and not present, values. If the scientific community fails to act, how long can science survive in a context that has forsaken truth and falseness? The second concerns how geopolitical implications will impact the scientific world and, more importantly, international cooperation. Cooperation between Europe and the United States will be fundamental to the future of free and efficacious scientific research, especially if it joins America’s typically unfettered innovation to Europe’s propensity for regulation.

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