Moving out of the ivory tower

By Henrik Andersen

Science is in crisis. Despite an enormous increase in productivity, and millions of articles published every year, science is failing one of its core principles: Objective and verifable truths. “The free play of intellects” is not what pushes science forward, it is rather a threat to science. In order for science to be saved, it must open up to the general public and be humble about its limits and its accountability to society. At least, that is the message in Daniel Sarewitz’ widely read “Saving Science” (2016).

The success of science

For the past few centuries, science has provided society with huge technological progress. From vaccines and medicine, to ever more effective ways of transportation. Science is today so entangled in society, that it is hard to talk about science and society as to separate entities. Almost every aspect of human life is affected by science – from birth control, to parent leave, to youth psychology, to cancer therapies – science is with us from before we are conceived to our very last breath.

As a result of these grand advances, science has been attributed with ever growing responsibilities and respect. We talk about the knowledge society, where everything is or will be solved or explained by science. The privileged role of science is however under threat. The competition for scientific funding is tightening, and the merit of all scientific action is also judged by the needs of society. This has resulted in more funding for engineering and physical sciences, and questions about the real benefit of the humanities and social sciences. It has also resulted in research that exaggerate findings. Articles with supposedly groundbreaking findings tend to get cited, articles who check those findings rarely do.

Problem solving and program research

In 1945, Vannevar Bush published Science the Endless Frontier, where he states the importance of the “free play of intellects”. Leaving curious scientists to solve problems of their interest would result in major scientific and technological advances, according to Bush. The message of Bush was welcomed and resulted in an enormous increase in funding for basic science. One of the major enablers for this was the science behind the atomic bomb, which showed how basic science can result in huge technological leaps. This was also the prediction for the future of science.

Contrary to Bush’ predictions, scientific and technological advances have largely been the result of programmatic research, largely funded by institutions like DARPA. The cold war brought major funding for military program research that gave us the technology underlying GPS and almost every component of the Iphone. Surely, basic research has resulted in many important scientific and technological contributions, but the major technological leaps have almost always been connected to some real-world problem in need of a solution. As an example, the technology underlying incubators for premature babies is a direct application of the technology of space suits. Would we even have this technology
without the massive funding for space travel during the cold war?

Replication problems

Science faces many challenges today, despite its historical success. The very norms internal to science are under threat: Science is supposed to provide us with objective and verifiable, independent truths. Recent replicability projects
have shown that much of our scientific knowledge does not live up to this ideal.

The last years have seen a growing concern about the reliability of peer-reviewed science. One of science’s problems is that it is in part judged by citation, a system that is not always reliable. In this case, some articles that contain major flaws have been cited and used by other authors, and their articles have also been cited numerous times. Unreliable knowledge then solidifies and confusion arises. Furthermore, a biotechnology company recently found that only six out of fifty-three “landmark” studies it sought to validate could be replicated. Lastly, a compilation of nearly one hundred fifty clinical trials for therapies to block human inflammatory response showed that even though the therapies had supposedly been validated using mouse model experiments, every one of the trials failed in humans. Science is in a state of rapid evolution, but it seems to lack sufficient means to make sure that the science good, reliable and replicable.

Prescription: opening up to society

Daniel Sarewitz points to several challenges facing science. Not all of them can be mentioned here. Instead we should address how to solve this crisis. Sarewitz says that science needs to open up to society and be humble about its responsibility
to the general public, and also be humble about what science can and cannot do. One of the reasons why science should “open up” is that it fails to communicate to the general public what it is actually doing. Many areas of science are today so advanced that even undergraduate students in their discipline have problems understanding the research. Science is tricky, as it should be. But this does not exempt scientists from explaining what the purpose of their work is all about. Better communication can both help legitimizing research and open up for more funding, as well as involving the public in the scientific enterprise.

Science with and for society

Since 2012, European science policy has focused on these problems and formulated a vision for “Science with and for society”. Out of this comes the work on RRI – responsible research and innovation. Responsible research and innovation is an attempt at involving stakeholders in scientific enterprise and technological development. RRI has become a way of incorporating societal concerns, “grand challenges” and ethics into research and business development. By doing so, science is held accountable for its impact on society. It also reflects science’s need of public funding. It must therefore be clear what the purpose of scientific endeavours are, and how they contribute back to society.

These trends might be a way for science and society to get more in tune with each other, and at the same time solve some of the problems integral to science


Not exactly rocket science

By Joar Kvamsås

When a rocket belonging to Elon Musks’ Space X programme exploded upon launch in September of last year, it was a PR disaster. Not only did it cause the destruction of a $200 million satellite financed by Marc Zuckerberg that was meant to expand internet services in Africa, but Musk himself has gone out and called it the «toughest puzzle» the Space X programme has had to solve – a programme which ambition is to eventually develop affordable interplanetary travel between Earth and Mars.

Today, the idea of a rocket misfiring and exploding for unknown reasons appear deeply unsettling. NASA has given us the impression that launching rockets is an exact science, the purview of only the brightest minds of physics and engineering. In the public imagination, rocket science is seen as the ultimate achievement of modern physics; the practical application of an exact mathematical understanding of the laws of nature, put in use to explore the outer frontiers of our universe.

However, this conception of rocket science is a surprisingly recent one. By most accounts, modern rocket science originated with a small group of graduate students known as the ‘Rocket Boys’ working at Caltech in the 1930s. At the time, rocket science – or ‘rocketry’, as it was commonly known – was not regarded as a respectable scientific area of study. Toying around with explosive substances in the hope of launching objects into the air was an idea reserved for science fiction writers and lunatics. The Caltech group soon earned the nickname the ‘Suicide Club’, which became particularly popular once they were booted off campus after blowing up part of a university building in one of their experiments.

Getting thrown off the premises did not deter the group, however. Taken under the wing of renowned aeronautics professor Theodore von Karman, the group was soon allowed back on campus, before (after more explosive accidents) they were given their own premises consisting of tarpaper shacks, far from any valuable buildings. The Rocket Boys were given a space to fail, to fail spectacularly and loudly. And fail they did; through a series of mislaunches and explosions, the group used trial and error to explore the principles of rocket science that would one day be used to land people on the moon. By 1944, the group had attracted both interest and funding from the US Armed Forces, and had taken on the more respectable name the Rocket Propulsion Laboratory.

In accordance with the popular conception at the time, the Suicide Club was populated by its fair share of eccentric characters. Among these was the larger-than-life personality Jack Parsons, a high school drop-out and self-taught chemist who became a central figure in early rocket fuel research. He was recognised for his talents as an amateur rocket enthusiast and his expertise on powder explosives, the latter of which he enhanced by visiting industrial accidents to determine the cause of explosions. Parsons was also an avid occultist, and was in 1944 discharged from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories for his involvement in the Thelemite group Ordio Tempio Orientis. Having been ousted from the rocketry community after being accused of espionage during the 50’s McCarthyism, he died at age 37 from an explosion in his home laboratory. While his importance to the US rocketry programme was long downplayed, it has in later years been recognised in a series of biographies with titles such as Sex and Rockets and Strangle Angel: The Otherwordly Life of Jack Parsons.

The story of Parsons and the Caltech Rocket Boys gives us some perspective the most recent developments of modern-day space travel. While Elon Musk’s dream of a colony on Mars seems like the works of science fiction now, the idea is nowhere near as outlandish as the idea of rocketpropelled travel was in the 1930s. And while it might seem far-fetched that interplanetary travel should spring from the dreams of an internet billionaire, Musk would certainly not be the most eccentric character to have a defining impact on human space travel. Lastly, failed attempts and unforeseen setbacks are an integral part of research and invention. And when you are researching rocketry, you should not be surprised to see those mistakes come in the form of great big explosions.