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Apr 26 2011

Backlashes of homogeneous research in EU

[Articolo inviato per il concorso “Careers column contest” indetto da Nature. Non vincitore]

I don’t know when the strategy has started overwhelming the others, but it has been clear to me since when I started my MSc in Scotland that in the last few years it is simply consolidating its position as the major way to conceive and produce science all over the EU system. The rules composing this strategy are as simple as the ratio they result from: in order to succeed in making good science, it is necessary to have the funds; in order to have the funds, we must show we are better than our competitors in a field; hence, the best investment consists in specialising and it can be best gained building groups oriented to a single target. This strategy comes at a high price: we are loosing heterogeneity as a major approach to reality and the resulting homogeneous groups are becoming less and less able to either change perspective and find alternatives or rapidly adapt should the overall context be found saturated. On the contrary, considering the level of specialisation acquired, it would still be a better investment to squeeze few things from an exhausted hypothesis, than try crossing unexplored fields.

Scientific paradigms have become small and awfully crowded. It is like if somewhere, somebody might have established that those researchers finding an hypothesis to be false, have failed in their work, wasted their time and -what is worst- wasted money. May Popper and the process of falsification rest in peace.

Now that the economic crisis is hitting hard in particular those countries like Italy characterised by weakening research programs due to decreasing funds (established by government’s ignorance enthusiasts), the strategy is becoming even more aggressive and pervasive. The already homogeneous groups, specialise even more, becoming oriented to the objective to create and provide new technologies or short life methods to apply to contingent problems, simply because that’s where the few remaining moneys are. Ultimately, this strategy gives more chances to secure funds in the short run, but in the long run, it is creating a weak system, drying up the reservoir of knowledge provided by abstract research and the richness (figuratively speaking) granted by the presence of multiple approaches and perspectives to each single problem.

The weakest link in the chain is easily to be identified in the young researchers: forced to bend to the request of their laboratory leader, they are selected on the very basis of their ability to pursue the provided objective with little or no space for individual paths of glory. Of course I am not trying to sell the story that young researchers ultimately work nowadays as in an assembly line, unaware of what they are doing, but it is difficult to deny that selection processes today value the most the specialisation in short range techniques and methods, despite the nice words about multidisciplinary studies and emerging complexity.

This system does not create researchers: it creates technicians. Even thought it is necessary to have such kind of professional figures, the EU system should better realise that it is not possible to build an effective research program, whilst trying to discourage the training of actual researchers.

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