To do Science is not enough, we have to bet


In Trieste, Italy, in a recent international gathering of scientific diplomacy organized by the Academy of Sciences for the Developing Countries (TWAS, its acronym in English) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, its acronym in English), I saw former NASA astronaut (the U.S. space agency) David Hilmers talk about cooperation between scientists of different nationalities in space. I also saw Norm Neureiter, former scientific adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Relations of the United States, talking about collaboration on scientific projects with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s a very different reality from that of the developing countries that were represented there. How to convince our politicians and governments to value science?

I asked this question to Ray Orbach, scientist responsible for negotiating the participation of the United States in thermonuclear experimental reactor to be built in France by a consortium of nine countries. There will be simulated in a controlled environment, temperatures as high as those found in the Sun, and that will make the nuclear fusion of hydrogen, producing helium gas and energy, lots of energy.

How to expect a country like Brazil, where the average citizen has little education – almost 70% of the population has not completed high school – and the government does not consider science, technology and innovation (ST & I) a priority – we have a fifth of the world’s average number of scientists by inhabitants – come participate in something so important for the future of humanity? This requires investments of frightening amounts of money, huge uncertainties, major conflicts of interest and too much risk. And what is worse, the results appear only in the long run: the operations of the reactor, for example, are referred to in 30 years.

Orbach had no answer. But in that moment, the president of TWAS, Romain Murenzi, a native of Rwanda, stood up and challenged me: “I was in Brazil and I can assure you, your country has a strong commitment to ST&I”. He mentioned the improvement of the position of Brazilian universities in international rankings and, as would be expected, the Science without Borders program.

The next day, when the representative of the Dominican Republic called for a stronger legislation to prevent the escape of academics from developing countries, Romain stood up again and said he was mistaken in thinking it was the lack of infrastructure that led scientists to escape their countries. In many of them, the political conditions were so unstable that researchers feared for his life, not by unavailability of equipment.

I understood later, talking privately with Romain that for him the fact of my country have invested in my education to the doctoral meant a deep commitment to ST & I. Of course if you compare Brazil with Rwanda will have to accept that our commitment to ST & I is strong. But if we compare with the U.S.? And what comparison is correct?

After seeing the two seconds video of the light touch of the leg of a paraplegic on the ball at the opening of the World Cup in Brazil, and the reaction of the scientific community on social networks, I found the answer.

The comparison did not matter. Only when we were willing to invest large sums of money on cutting-edge projects, risky and uncertain, we would unveil a big commitment to science.

Brazil has an enormous socioeconomic deficit that also inhibits its scientific development. It is virtually impossible not to be always one step behind our collaborators (and competitors). A strategy to escape this trap would be to walk an alternative path, where the long-term investment in basic education were accompanied by massive investments in fron
tier of sciences. Areas with potential for faster returns, but with greater financial contributions, as well as uncertainties and risks.

The answer was in that lawn. Brazil had committed! The result was not the expected. From the point of view of marketing – and it was a marketing event for the demonstration took place in the World Cup opening, not in a scientific congress – it was a failure. But scientifically the enterprise has not failed. It’s easy, retrospectively, to find the reasons why the venture failed. But cast the first stone who has never talked about an outcome before it was published. It will be up to the funding agencies to account for the invested resources and the scientific community to verify Nicolelis’ allegations. Which, incidentally, will be the only one to bear the embarrassment that was the difference between the promised and the delivered.

Scientific activity is risky and its results can never be predicted with accuracy. But it is part of the game. An expensive game, but precisely because of that, it requires a large commitment of the players. Four years ago, Nicolelis was the right bet. More than that, investing in science was the right decision for Brazil. Brazilian science can live without the 15 million USD that were allocated to Nicolelis’ research. What Brazil cannot, is to live without the fundamental commitment to risk in science.

MAURO F. REBELO, 42, PhD in biophysics, is professor at the Institute of Biophysics Carlos Chagas Filho, at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Free translation by the author from the article published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo on 21/06/2014

Science, Politics and Compromise


As I get ready and pack for the Science Diplomacy workshop that I’m going to participate in Trieste, Italy next week, I try to control the enthusiasm. I am part of a very selected group of scientists and politicians from several parts of the world that are going to try establishing the common ground to address the challenges of the 21st century.

Under the sponsorship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The World Academy of Science (TWAS), we are going to discuss Mechanisms for Science diplomacy, Linking Science to Development, National Approaches to Science Diplomacy and Priorities, Large Scale Infrastructure, Transboundary Cooperation, The role of science education and exchanges to build international links and Regional Integration and Science Diplomacy.

I’m so excited! And afraid.

I am afraid that it may impossible for us to succeed, because there may be no such common language. No such middle ground.

Science is about the search for the truth based on evidence. Politics is about the search for consensus, not always (or not necessarily) based on evidence. Consensus is obtained by compromise. And in science, in the scientific activity, there is no room for compromise.

Open parenthesis: We want consensus in science too, and because we have evidence to set our disputes, consensus in science should be inevitable. But it turns out it is neither that simple, nor that easy. We, scientists, after all, are humans, and susceptible to conflict of interest, bias, partiality and other human motivational bad choices. Fortunately, eventually, evidence (or the truth) prevails and science moves forward in a consensus that Thomas Khun named “a new paradigm”. Close parenthesis

Politics are influenced by the opinion of the majority. Science could not care less about it. The reason is simple: the majority is not necessarily (actually, rarely is) smart. In lay terms, the Brazilian author Nelson Rodrigues said once: “all unanimity is stupid!”

No mystery behind that. The skeptic Michael Shermer shows in his inteesting book ‘Why intelligent people believe in strange things’ that our choices are rarely result of an intleigente rational process. Most of the times it is result of circumstances, emotions (specially fear) and our concern about other people (specially our peers) opinions (and acceptance).

Open parenthesis: Although ‘intelligence and rational thinking are not our most used feature to make decisions, we use them a lot to justify whatever decision we have made. And we are very, very good at it. Close parenthesis.

The majority, as Isaias Pessotti mentioned in his marvelous book ‘The Mediavilla Manuscript’ is a measure of power, not intelligence. The majority is important to give mandates, not to make decisions. That is why we should give mandates to very intelligent people. In my particular opinion, as a scientist, I believe we should give mandates to very intelligent people that base their decisions in evidence. But, even though I’m not alone in this belief, we are far from being the majority.

Because politics have a mandate from the majority, they are worried about pleasing the (right or wrong) majority. Scientists… They don’t care about the majority (I could open another parenthesis here, for nowadays, many scientists are worried about the majority, or should I say, about showing up in the news). They care about being right (well, and publications, and grants, and prizes, and sometimes, they cara about money too).

“I don’t want to be right, I want to be happy” said the brazilian poet Ferreira Goulart. But for a scientist, to be right IS to be happy!

Scientists are full of defects. The are narcissist, egocentric, arrogant, jealous and envy (to list some). And the fact that they can, at least sometimes, go over all this to describe the reality in an unbiased way… is almost a miracle (ops, most scientists don’t believe in god or miracles either). To do that, we have to fight previous assumptions, preferences, intuitions, guesses, opinions. It is very hard. That is why is so obnoxious when journalists ask us to give contundent last minute statements about complex and complicated topics that we spend years studying, that are surrounded by uncertainty and to which, many times, we can only grasp a comprehension.

But we rarely put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes. People don’t understand and, most of the time, they don’t care about how things works. They want to be happy, they don’t want to be right. Politicians have to take that into account.

It was during a lecture from the physicist and ex-president of the Brazilian society for the advancement of science Enio Candotti, entitled ’Science, Politics and truth’ that I was introduced to this huge gap between the scientist’s objective perception of the reality and the politician’s subjective one.

Is there reconciliation between evidence and consensus? Objective and subjective? Right and Happy? I hope so, and I’m going to Trieste with an open mind and a lot of enthusiasm to look for it.

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