Rulers should step aside for science

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Kari Enqvist, professor of cosmology, believes in European science. The recipe for ground-breaking discoveries includes a strong tradition, the freedom and funding to putter with unprofitable projects and chance.

“The economies in Asia have experienced dramatic success lately, but I do not believe that Asia will surpass Europe in terms of science for some time,” muses Professor Kari Enqvist, non-fiction author and one of the best-known scientists in Finland.

“Money is of course necessary, but the main requirement for scientific achievement is tradition, and lacking it, Asia is likely to fall behind.

The tradition is passed on, as if from master to apprentice, and includes an incredible number of factors that must be pieced together to attain a fruitful result. A good example of the power of tradition is the work to understand the structure of DNA, which was completed in the 1950s.”

Enqvist believes lack of tradition is also the reason why Finland has so few Nobel laureates.

“All of Europe has only recently recuperated from the wars of the 20th century, which cannot help but influence the progress of science. But in Finland, real scientific research did not truly begin until the Second World War. At that point, the rest of Europe had been scientifically active for two centuries,” Enqvist points out.

Faraday’s children

While the questions science asks are universal, most of the scientific research and inventions in the past two centuries have been made by European researchers within the Euro-Atlantic sphere of influence, summarises Enqvist.

“In terms of science and technology, we are currently in the age of electricity, as we have been for the past 200 years. This is not the space age or atomic age. Unlike the industrial revolution that preceded it, the scientific revolution that began in the early 19th century goes beyond everyday things – to things we must research.”

Enqvist points out that even though all contemporary technological innovations stem from electricity, its discovery by Michael Faraday in the 1830s was not the result of commissioned research of the time. Faraday simply wanted to read the great book of nature out of pure curiosity, using his own empirical methods.

Outside direction impossible

Enqvist does not believe scientific progress can be predicted. It is impossible to direct fundamental basic research, which is driven by other motives, and largely guided by chance. Practical applications are often created without concrete plans, as was the case with the World Wide Web in 1991.

“Successful basic research depends on a political structure that does not interfere with scientific work”, emphasises Enqvist.

“It needs a favourable form of government and an atmosphere that is supportive towards ‘puttering’ on projects that are not immediately profitable.”

And what of the future?

“The borders of academic Europe have expanded and mobility among researchers has increased during the first decade of this millennium. I am optimistic and believe that Europe has a bright future in terms of basic research.”

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