In these tough economic times, would money spent on blue-skies research – like the recent comet landing – be better spent on urgent humanitarian and societal problems?
In 1970, just after the moon landing, the great Gil Scott Heron released a song called “Whitey on the Moon” which lamented:
“I can’t pay no doctor bills
But Whitey’s on the moon.”
The song contrasted the reality of African-Americans’ everyday life with the scientific and technological advances of the cold war space race.
The question was laid out: can one think about the cosmos – and spend precious money trying to understand it – when so many inequalities still need to be addressed?
I strongly believe that we need not choose between fundamental research on one side and social justice on the other. In fact we cannot choose.
Throughout history, fundamental research, technological and societal advances have continuously advanced side by side. Scientific research in quantum mechanics in the early 20th century brought us the information age, which has revolutionised so many aspects of the world we live in today. Today’s technology and economy are inherently linked to those early scientific advances. Society and the way people interact, communicate and inform themselves have all been profoundly transformed too.
Historically, there are many more examples of these inherent links between science, technology and society. The study of genetics contributed to understanding race as a social construct. Studies in neurobiology showed that differences between female and male brains were due to environmental effects (link in French). Even simple technological advances had a major societal impact, for example with the popularity of the bicycle contributing to the women’s rights movement.
Can we therefore choose between fundamental research and social justice? No. The two go hand in hand and should be pursued in parallel.
Social justice in the lab
One battleground for social justice is within science labs themselves, where white males are over-represented in the higher paying, higher echelons which offer stable permanent contracts, and where women and minorities are more likely to be offered some of the numerous short-term and precarious positions that now constitute the bulk of the academic workforce. This is problematic because it suggests that public money is not always used meritocratically. Social injustice has many faces and the position of women and minorities in science is one of them that should be addressed by science policy makers. Without concrete proactive policies, the European Commission report on gender equality in science concluded that the gap would take decades to close.
Policy makers should take note that in order to truly inspire, science should not only be at the cutting edge of fundamental research and technological advances, but also at the forefront of social progress.