Beyond Nobel: In Search Of A Better Way To Measure Science

Finding the right formula
Finding the right formula
Madhusudhan Raman

NEW DELHI — In an article in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen express their concerns about the perceived slowdown of scientific progress. With "more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before," they ask whether the rising investment in scientific research is yielding proportionately rising dividends, or whether we are "investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?" Yet, as they concede, it's unclear how to measure the rate of scientific progress.

Much ink has been spilled on the misplaced reification of the Nobel Prizes. The Wire: It presents "a lopsided view of how scientific research has been undertaken in the world." The Atlantic: "The discoverer is forever billed as an intellectual force in their own right — creating an equivalence between one historical contribution and their entire portfolio of ideas forevermore." Then, there are the shocking omissions: Rosalind Franklin, Vera Rubin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and E.C.G. Sudarshan, to name just a few.

These important criticisms are sociological in nature. However, the importance of the scientific work itself is rarely in question. The results of the Collison-Nielsen survey (across the sciences) seem to show that science is becoming "less efficient" and suggest "strong diminishing returns to our scientific efforts."

The notion that the state invests in science to secure awards for its scientists is laughable.

Beneath the idea that scientific understanding has not grown with investment in scientific research lies what seems like a truism — that research's only purpose is to produce discoveries and inventions. In isolation, this is an innocuous statement. PhDs are in fact awarded for original research, aren't they?

But science as a state-funded activity does not exist in isolation. Ashis Nandy has written that since the Cold War, science has served as a reason of state, along with national security and development. In particular, states "sought to out-rival another … not in the political or military arena, nor in sports, but in science redefined as dramatic technology." It is no wonder that governments rejoice like research institutions when a Nobel Prize is awarded to one of their own.

The scientist's role must be understood in relation to society, not in isolation. First, she has to conduct research in her field of study. In addition, she is also typically required to teach at universities, research institutions and workshops, and mentor graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. A recent addition to this list is that she engage in scientific outreach as well.

Framing science as a reason of state, and as a source of legitimacy of the state itself, is important. Now, we can ask: what does this publicly funded venture intend to achieve?

The notion that the state invests in science to secure awards for its scientists is laughable. Most scientists would balk at the thought of working solely for monetary gain or recognition. Similarly, the idea that state-funded scientific research exists only to create more scientists (than are needed to keep universities functioning) is self-serving and absurd.

The 2018 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — Source: Nobel.org

However, a popular but pernicious view is that science is pursued for its own sake. This is troubling because it refuses to admit any context. This way, the scope for activity and interests of the working scientist are circumscribed by the physical walls of the institution.

In Nandy's words, scientific activity in this worldview "keeps the practice of science outside politics' but maintains the "direct, privileged access to the state" that scientific institutions enjoy. Thus, the scientific establishment and the state legitimize each other and, in the process, the former abdicates its responsibility to the people.

A more democratic view of scientific research is as a vehicle exposing the citizenry to a method of analysis that is systematic and comprehensive. Its essential method can be used to study more complicated questions in city planning, economic policy, public health, etc.

We need to structure higher education in the sciences to allow for lateral moves.

For this to happen, the structure of higher-education programs needs to be modified so they produce graduates of use to society's wider needs. For example, higher-education programs in the sciences could also train would-be graduates to teach middle- and high-school students, qualifying them for government jobs in the education sector. A graduate student studying epidemiology could, through changes in the academic pipeline, acquire additional qualifications in public health administration.

Academia has always seen scientists who fail to secure a permanent position in academia as failed academics. This is unfortunate. We need to structure higher education in the sciences to allow for lateral moves, from science to public administration, to economic planning, to education, etc.

Whether science is "getting less bang for its buck" is not terribly important. Science is harder today because the questions we are asking are more nuanced, the experimental techniques are more sophisticated and the systems of study are more complex. It will take time, but we will get there. In the words of the mathematician David Hilbert, "We must know — we will know!"

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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