Scientific freedom: The elixir of civilisation

Scientific freedom: The elixir of civilisation

Donald Braben

Hoboken, US: Wiley-Interscience 2008 | 184 pp | ?31.95 (SB) ISBN 9780470226544

Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray 

The great flowering of science that began in the post-Renaissance period has continued almost unabated for more than four centuries. In some instances the progress made has been so spectacular that it has given rise to revolutionary new theories and insights that have profoundly altered our view of the world. Well-known examples are relativity, quantum and evolution theories. With such an illustrious past one might be forgiven for assuming that all is well on the science front. But this is not the case and since the beginning of the 1970s the brakes on genuinely innovative thinking have been ever more firmly applied. The rapid progress we have taken for granted has been reduced to a mere trickle and science has effectively ceased to come up with major breakthroughs that radically change our view of the world. This is the scenario set by author Braben and he has no doubt at all what is responsible for the current parlous state of affairs.

It is perhaps only to be expected that physicist Braben, who headed up the Venture Research Organisation operated by BP during the decade 1980-1990, believes that the policies and practices adopted by science funding agencies are to blame. These agencies have brought about a situation in which science is now micromanaged to such an extent that it is being effectively carried out to order. Originality and creativity are out, and safe, unimaginative and even humdrum science is in. Continuation of this approach, Braben maintains, can only lead to dire consequences, not only for scientists but also for our science-based civilisation, which is utterly dependent on the lifeblood of new ideas being regularly fed through the research pipeline. What we urgently need now is to start investing in what Braben calls transformative research, that is to say research without any strings attached. Researchers should have complete academic freedom to launch out into any direction they choose regardless of exclusions, boundaries, deadlines or peer review. Braben’s bold thinking examines a problem that for too long has been largely ignored and gives a timely warning that administrators and politicians who seem bent on stifling scientific creativity do so at a very high cost to us all.