Public debate is increasingly a debate about research. Scientific findings rapidly hit the newspaper headlines and television news and spread – sometimes in distorted form – via social media. This is because research concerns all aspects of the life of society: plastic in the oceans, access to new vaccines, new batteries for electric vehicles, or the effect of measures to promote the integration of immigrants.
Research findings and their use are often controversial, and rapidly become the subject of political debate. How extensive is pollution from microplastics? Should new prohibitions or fees be introduced? Should the expansion of wind power be limited? Should a vaccine be made obligatory?
To a steadily increasing extent and in constantly new ways, research shapes people’s everyday lives, whether this concerns the content of education policy, GPS navigation, or the fact that more and more people have a supercomputer in their pocket: their mobile phone, which is a telephone exchange, a bank branch office, a travel agent, a juke box, a radio, a cinema, a health centre, a diary, a library – all rolled into one. It can be used to warn citizens in the event of an emergency, to establish a social and political forum for citizens – or to monitor them. Modern societies cannot function without the mobile phone, and research keeps adding new functions.
Research does not just affect the things people use – it also shapes their thinking. Concepts that only occurred in specialist journals ten years ago have now passed into everyday usage – words like ‘nanotechnology’, ‘laparoscopic surgery’, ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘gene therapy’. Everyday language is also full of concepts from previous generations’ research – from ‘acceleration’ and ‘cold front’ to ‘blood pressure’ and ‘GDP’. Such concepts moreover have spread globally.
In a word: research and research findings have become the most powerful socially transformative force. This is reflected not only in improvements in the countless conveniences of everyday life and in language, but also in the great global epochal changes – the word ‘anthropocene’ is used for the age in which we now find ourselves, where human beings’ own activities are changing the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including the climate.
When both the physical and the social world are increasingly transformed by human beings themselves, a lack of knowledge becomes a growing risk. How are we to respond to the next outbreak of Ebola? How quickly will the sea level rise, and what will the consequences be for human settlement, food production, the water supply and migration? What has Sweden learned from the forest fires in summer 2018 to prepare the country for the next time? How will self-driving cars change patterns of production and labour markets? Can technological measures be used to counter the danger to democracy presented by ‘fake news’? How is the next financial crisis to be overcome? What happens when bees die?
When such questions arise, it is worth remembering that it was many years of basic research on retroviruses that made it possible to quickly identify HIV at an early stage of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Without knowledge, infrastructure and research preparedness, society will be more vulnerable in the face of new challenges and unforeseen developments: countermeasures will come too late. And they will be expensive – the price of not knowing is high.
At the same time, this underlines the fact that research policy must provide ample scope for the free quest for true knowledge that we call basic research – and which provides a preparedness to meet different, unknown futures. Sweden – and the world – is reminded of this every year when the Nobel prizes are awarded: it often takes time, a long time, from award to application. It took ten years from the discovery of nitroglycerine by Professor Ascanio Sobrero to the invention and patenting of dynamite by Alfred Nobel.
Paradoxically, the growth of knowledge can create a lack of knowledge. The use of knowledge that research gave us in earlier times can weaken our ability to act today. The simplest example is antibiotic resistance. This is not due to our knowledge about antibiotics having become invalid. But the use of this knowledge, which was gained nearly 100 years ago, has so changed human beings’ bacterial surroundings that medicines are losing their efficacy. Consequently, our knowledge is inadequate. And this ignorance entails a great new danger.
The situation is similar in many areas. For example, the ubiquity of combustion engines has made transport and communications by land, sea and air easier – but has now become a major source of global warming. This is an unintended – and undesired – consequence. And this development has to be turned around to save the environment we live in.
Research can therefore be made obsolete by its own success. The knowledge community is self-transforming in the sense that the use of knowledge generates problems that can only be solved by new research and new knowledge. This is evident in the economy as well, where technological innovations threaten to exclude a growing part of the adult population from the labour market and a meaningful life. Because the labour market is not something that is – it is something that, through research, innovations and other factors, is constantly changing and becoming something else.
In a society in which the growth of knowledge makes current knowledge obsolete and undermines the competence people possess through everything from robotisation to artificial intelligence, education must provide skills that last for life: concepts that endure, codes for interpretation and abilities for action. Without this, the explosion of knowledge leads to the very opposite of mastery: confusion, anxiety and perplexity.
When knowledge and research play a larger role in people’s lives, public debate also requires an enlightened public sphere. The sharing of knowledge and participation in the critical use of knowledge has a democratising effect. This is an idea that goes back to the Age of Enlightenment but it has taken on renewed relevance because of the increased pressure from new, global communication networks, social media and ‘fake news’. These new circumstances demand a population capable of intellectual resistance and able to assess everything they can now read, see and hear to identify what is valid and tenable. Familiarity with scholarly standards for the open exchange of opinions and an ability to exercise critical judgement is one of the most important contributions of research to a free public sphere.
However, when knowledge plays a larger role in people’s lives, people also need to be able to feel confidence in research methods and findings, and confidence that researchers are driven by data, not by dogmas. This means that more weight must be given to the integrity of research – solid standards for scholarly procedures, publication and rational debate – in other words, to ensuring reliable investigations, trustworthy analyses, accurate reporting, transparency, peer review, factual debate, correction of errors and respect for all participants and people concerned. The primary prerequisite for public confidence in researchers is that researchers have confidence in one another. And when research breaks the boundaries of the possible, this must be accompanied by a humanistic tradition and ethics that set limits for what is permissible.
This must also underlie students’ introduction to research: the ability to wonder and ask new questions, the ability to formulate possible explanations for their findings, and the ability to investigate whether their explanations hold up through source evaluation, experiments or observation.
This kind of thinking is within everyone’s reach. And it is essential in a society that is becoming ever more research-driven, and where education and learning are changing from a phase in life to a way of life.
In the years ahead, we in the Nordic countries and Sweden will have to live more and more by our wits. The material foundation of welfare depends on our ability to gain and use knowledge with imagination and determination – on the ability to master the societal consequences of growing knowledge and to ensure sustainable development. This being so, Sweden needs to have research that is strong enough to take its place in the international research networks in which new knowledge is produced, reviewed and applied.
Ignorance is dangerous. Ignorance is expensive. Research and knowledge are among the most fantastic things human beings have learned to do together – ideas that are developed are transmitted across generations and transcend all borders by combining tradition and innovation. Research is necessary, not just to secure the prosperity of the nation but also to give citizens rich, exciting and meaningful lives.
Gudmund Hernes has been Chair of the University Board of Uppsala University since 1 May 2017. He is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology, former Minister of Education and Research in Norway (1990–1995) and member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
*From time to time the Vice-Chancellor’s Blog publishes posts by other contributors. Please address any questions about the contents to the guest blogger.