I noticed a thought-provoking seminar to be held soon at the British Library, Don and dusted: Is the Age of the Scholar over?. The question to be debated is the future of academic scholarship in the face of demands for return on investment and output-driven research. In tough times like these there are highly justified claims that public and private finance be used for practical purposes and that research must lead to concrete results.
What is the difference between the old-fashioned scholar and the 21st century researcher? Universities today are under increasing pressure to deliver tangible results and it is hard to justify research that is purely theoretical and exploratory. Will the increased demands on results lead to the end of traditional academic freedom? Hopefully there will always be room for purely inquisitive research but it still requires financial backing from somewhere. Many of the greatest scientific discoveries have occurred almost by accident when the scientists were actually looking for something quite different.
Many people demand that research should be governed by the needs of society/corporations/customers and in many cases this is fine. However, if customer needs were the only criteria for research and development would we ever have developed personal computers or cellphones? I remember back in the late eighties when a cellphone operator claimed, to great public ridicule, that in the future everyone would have a cellphone. There was very little customer demand for the product but they went ahead anyway and the rest is history.
There has to be money available to finance wild-card research. Much of it may not lead to major breakthroughs but every now and again someone will find a missing link, an exception that will turn previous theories upside down and lead us into completely new avenues. The problem is how to judge which projects are worth investing in and which are pointless. If everyone agrees that the world is flat who on earth would back someone who questions that?
I hope the organisers of this debate will post a report of the discussion.