Richard Synge (1977) - 'Wasteful' Research in Pure and Applied Science

Richard Synge (1977)

"Wasteful" Research in Pure and Applied Science

Richard Synge (1977)

"Wasteful" Research in Pure and Applied Science

Comment

Richard Synge was a frequent visitor and lecturer at the chemistry meetings in Lindau between 1958 and 1980. Until the present lecture, he kept his topics to chemistry, but this time the theme was more general. It is a theme, which touches upon every science policy maker, scientist and science student, always! So it is still topical and may be even more so today than it was in 1977. The reason is that Synge has a strong opinion on how research should be organized and funded and does not seem to shy away from trampling on some feet while bringing his point home. The lecture starts with an interesting historic overview of research organization through the ages. Synge names the French Academy of Sciences at the time of the revolution as the “villain”, the first research organisation trying to order scientists to produce specific practical results. He doesn’t like this way of producing science and gives a number of examples where it went wrong. His message is that scientific progress usually comes in small steps. This means that when politicians and science policy makers try to make scientists find a rapid way to solve a given problem, the result is usually inefficient and produces only what Synge calls “wasteful” research. One example that he gives is a (named) medical company trying out every possible combination of drugs instead of, as another (named) company, funding research on the mechanisms of the drugs. Synge’s visit to Lindau occurred in the middle of the two oil crises of the 1970’s, a time when the economies of the western world were shaken. A message, which must have been well accepted by the primarily young audience, was that politicians should not let the economic crisis influence the funding of education. Hear, hear!

Anders Bárány

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