Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Win Funds, Scientists Pursue Sweeping Solutions to Social Ills

Paul Voosen, Chronicle of Higher Education
February 9, 2015

When President Obama called for a $215-million "precision medicine initiative" in his State of the Union speech last month, he was behaving very much like a politician of his times. This was mission-driven research, squarely aimed at solving society’s ills—in this case, by tailoring cures to individuals. This was not science for the sake of discovery—the "endless frontier," as the architect of U.S. science policy after World War II, Vannevar Bush, termed it. This was utilitarian. There was a promise of applied results.

Over the past decade, these promises have repeatedly been made in the name of "grand challenges." Often invoking the Apollo program, philanthropies and governments have urged researchers to pursue scientific solutions to specific societal problems. The United States, Canada, India, and Brazil have all embraced grand challenges, and the European Union has made solving "societal challenges" a pillar of its research agenda. Challenges abound.  Even as such mission-driven research has grown in scale and ambition, its ends have become increasingly specific, several science-policy researchers and historians say. Basic science is still supported under the mantle of applied work—see the National Institutes of Health—but it feels like the idea of science for discovery’s sake has lost nearly all its gravity.  Read more