The Transformative Effect of Science
06 November 2021
ERC President Maria Leptin's keynote address at the Berlin Science Week, joint ERC - Berlin University Alliance event, Berlin
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Dear Professor Kunst, Dear distinguished ERC grantees, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am delighted to be here as part of Berlin Science Week. It is a great opportunity to celebrate science! I am glad that we could put this event together with the Berlin University Alliance. And I want to thank my predecessor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon and Günter Ziegler from the Free University of Berlin for having mediated this.

I am particularly delighted to be here in my new role as President of the European Research Council, which I started just this week.

For those who do not know me, I am a developmental biologist and immunologist. My career has taken me from Germany to Switzerland, to the UK, the US and France and back to Germany again. Most recently, I was the director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). And I still lead research groups at the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne and the EMBL in Heidelberg.

Already, one of my aims is to build a greater appreciation of what the ERC does, and to foster a more positive attitude towards research. One of the approaches will include communicating better the successes of ERC grantees.

The ultimate proof of what the ERC does is the work of our grantees. And so I am delighted that four of them are here today. My predecessor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon realised and made it clear to me that the best ambassadors for the ERC are the brilliant researchers that we support. Citizens in all countries in Europe should know what their ERC grantees are doing and should take pride in them.

But I am here today to talk about science in general. And why society should support it.

Science is, at its core, an attempt to understand the world around us. And I for one believe that this is a worthwhile end in itself.

But I understand that it may be difficult to persuade governments and citizens to support us at the levels they do (and that I believe are minimally necessary) if understanding was the only result of science.

Let me be clear here, when I say ‘us’ I mean not only the natural sciences, but all academic research.  Even though I will focus today on the natural sciences, I want to make it clear that I consider curiosity-driven research in ALL areas important and of interest for all citizens and their governments.

Governments do support the arts and research in the humanities to some extent. But to nothing like the level that they support science.

And today’s topic is indeed more about the natural sciences. 

So let’s ask: what do people want from science?

First of all, they want to see improvements in their standard of living, based on material wealth.

Economists have been studying the classical factors of production: land; labour; and capital for over 200 years. But economists in the 1960s and 70s came to realise that at most half and maybe as little as 15% of the historical growth could be explained by known factors. The rest could only be explained by positing a new factor of production: technological progress.

It is easy to understand why, if you imagine a farmer that can grow enough to feed herself. Add another farmer and maybe they can grow twice as much. But each one only has the same amount as the first used to have.

If we add some capital, say a plough, then now they can grow more and be genuinely better off. Give each of them a plough and things are really looking up! But at this point, adding a third plough is not going to help. There is no one to use it. The only way for them to become better off again is to move on to something different. And we have seen many advances in agriculture such as fertilisers, new crop varieties, irrigation and advanced machinery. So real growth in per capita wealth ultimately comes from new technology.

So where does new technology come from? In the end, all technologies harness natural phenomena. We can’t just invent anything we like. That’s for science fiction.

So it is science and building up our understanding of the world – be it the physical world, the living world or the human world - that allows us to create new technologies. What gives science its transformative impact is that by understanding the world, we can change the world.

Scientists have seen from the beginning the importance of understanding how the world functions. Francis Bacon argued in 1620 that "Nature can only be commanded by obeying her." Bacon argued that by pursuing science, “Humanity would be raised above conditions of helplessness, poverty and misery, while coming into a condition of peace, prosperity and security.”

At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet gave further expression to this optimism in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he predicted unlimited progress, not only in science and technology, but in morality and society. He wrote of the equality of the races and the sexes, and of peace between nations.

The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (best known for his work on evolution with Darwin) titled his book about the 1800s The Wonderful Century. In it, he described the many scientific advances of his day.

But of course this naïve confidence in progress was shattered by the terrible events of the Twentieth Century. Technical and material progress did not lead automatically to moral progress or an end to war. Instead, science produced terrible new weapons of war.

That is why the physicist Enrico Fermi speaking about science in the Twentieth Century sounds more circumspect: "Some of you may ask, what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long-haired professors… because only few specialists at best will be able to understand them? In answer to such question[s] I may venture a fairly safe prediction. History of science and technology has consistently taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionized our way of life... What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers acquired over nature."

And here we are at the start of the Twenty-first Century. Faced with the realisation that our own actions have been causing irreparable damage to Nature and warming the atmosphere, with dire repercussions for our planet and our way of life.

Given this, it would not be surprising for people to turn against science and the idea of progress and the goal of economic growth.

But let us not forget that there has been progress. And many of the dreams of the Enlightenment have come to pass. Many of us live in unprecedented levels of material comfort and health compared to our ancestors.

And this is not just a rich world phenomenon. In 1800, 43% of the world’s new-borns died before their fifth birthday. In 1960, child mortality was still 18.5%. Over the last decades we have seen a very rapid decline of child mortality globally. In 2015, child mortality was down to 4.3% – ten times lower than two centuries ago. And child mortality (children under five) in rich countries today is much lower than 1%.

So in some ways, compared to their own times, Bacon and Condorcet have been proven spectacularly right!

We can acknowledge that there has been progress.  And at the same time, admit that we still face tremendous challenges. We can acknowledge that many of the problems we face are of our own making. And at the same time believe that we can solve them.

Let us remember the original goal of science, namely to understand the world.  In the context of what to do with scientific findings, let’s quote Richard Feynman: “scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things… Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad - but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.”

As scientists we must understand this power. But we must also accept our responsibility for the ways in which our findings are used. Creating a culture of ethics and integrity in research is as important as fostering a spirit of inquiry.

And of course we can and must be part of the solution to the problems we face now. And we are. It was the scientists who first detected global warming. And science must play its part in trying to reach a new equilibrium. We must actively undo what we have done.

And let me be clear. Science does not only lead to new technologies. I do not doubt that new and improved technologies can make major contributions to addressing some of the many challenges we face. But from the social sciences and humanities, we can also contribute new ideas about how to live sustainably, how to confront inequality, how we might work and live and educate ourselves in future.

But this is also where a potential problem comes in.

Since the earliest days, scientists have fought for freedom of inquiry.

Among current examples, today’s Max Planck Society here in Germany operates on the “Harnack Principle”, named after Alfred von Harnack, the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. He advocated the right of researchers to work independently of government or private requirements and unencumbered by bureaucracy. And to this day Max Planck Institutes are built up solely around the world's leading researchers. They themselves define their research subjects and are given the best working conditions, as well as free reign in selecting their staff.

In the UK in 1918, Richard Burdon Haldane chaired a committee, which produced a report recommending that general research should be under the control of autonomous Research Councils. These would be free from political and administrative pressures that might discourage research in certain areas.

In the US, a 1945 report to the President of the United States (Vannevar Bush in “Science, The Endless Frontier”) called for an expansion of government support for science, and the creation of the National Science Foundation. Famously he stated: “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”

The European Research Council operates according to similar principles. The ERC supports excellent scientists from anywhere in the world, of any age and from any field of research - including the social sciences and humanities. There are no predetermined targets or quotas. The ERC provides substantial, long-term funding of up to 3.5 million euros for up to five years. The only conditions are that ERC-funded researchers must be based in Europe and willing to be adventurous and to take risks in their research.

But this approach can be confusing for politicians, policymakers and administrators. They are under pressure to deliver results in the short term. All the more so when confronted with a major crisis. It is very tempting to promise: “we will fund scientists to solve climate change”. It is much harder to say: “we will fund scientists to develop new knowledge”. 
Scientists understand this political pressure for immediate results. Currently, there are indeed many pressing problems in the world. So why do funders such as the ERC not set priorities and instruct our grantees to try to solve specific problems?

The reason for this is certainly not because we care more about the needs of scientists than the needs of society! In fact, researchers share the concerns and the desire for solutions.

The philosophy of the ERC rests on the idea that researchers know best the most promising research areas to explore. Our belief is that, without understanding, there can be no real solution to problems. Furthermore, solutions can come from unexpected places. Science advances as a front. New findings in one area can open up new opportunities in different areas. Putting all our resources into priority areas can, therefore, paradoxically lower our chances of achieving progress, even in those areas.

So this is my other major aim as the new President of the European Research Council. That is to fight for sufficient funding for frontier research.

If we look at the journey which got us to the mRNA vaccines against Covid-19, we can see that it took many years of work by dedicated scientists all around the world. Not only to understand the existence and purpose of mRNA, but also to find a way to reliably deliver the new vaccines.

And this is not unusual. Any technology or product or service that we actually use is a combination of many components. Each of these has its own story and will have been developed over many years.

This idea of combination might sound trivial or obvious. But it is actually very important to understand. Because with each new understanding we acquire, we now have the possibility of combining it with all other knowledge we already have. Paul Romer, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, calls this “combinatorial explosion”. And this is what has driven the huge rise in living standards that we have seen over the last two centuries. Put simply, the more knowledge we acquire, the more useful combinations become possible.

Once we understand this combinatorial nature of technology, we can see why science, innovation and technological progress are not linear. And why each feeds the other in a constant series of feedback loops. So there is no point at which “the science” stops and “the innovation” begins.

The problem is when policy-makers start to believe that they can simply order researchers to come up with whatever they think is necessary. This is when you get absurdities such as researchers being asked in order to get funding: please tell us what discovery you are going to make and which societal challenge will it solve?

So in conclusion, I have argued that the transformative effect of science comes from discovering, and understanding and being able to manipulate in ever greater detail natural phenomena. And secondly, by combining these understandings together in ever new and unpredicted and unpredictable ways.

It is clear then that researchers must have the freedom to explore these phenomena. That is why funding cannot be short-sighted. To maintain a healthy research system, it is right to invest in long-term curiosity-driven research. Some consider this approach to be idealistic. And it is. But I consider this approach to be necessary in order for science to have its maximum impact for the benefit of society. And while I am President of the ERC, I will continue to make this argument for as long as it takes to be heard.

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