基础研究很少为我们揭示科学全貌

史蒂夫·富勒(Steve Fuller)表示,尽管存在诸多谜团,但将研究议题下放到学科一层上,成功的事例并不多

四月 28, 2020
Canadian and British observers illumined by both the sun and an atomic blast of ABLE, a 1-kiloton atomic bomb. January 27, 1951
Source: Alamy

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莫罗·法拉利(Mauro Ferrari)最近辞去欧洲研究理事会(European Research Council)主席一职,这让人们对“基础”研究与“应用”研究之间的区别有了清晰的认识。

在英国,这是一个特别热门的话题,因为它恰逢国会开始审议政府提出的“高风险、高回报”研究机构可能在英国研究生态中的作用。但是,鉴于全球公共财政面临的压力将不可避免地延续到可预见的Covid-19大流行之后的未来,那么,现在确实是时候让全球各国一起彻底反思纳税人到底为何应该资助研究了。

现行的科学政策论调认为,基础研究为产生大规模、长期公共利益的应用提供了最可靠的途径。“研究影响力”的概念相当灵活,它在无限的时期里极大地吹嘘了“不可预见的好处”,从而助长了这个论调。它的确切基础在国际上表现不一,但具最突出的代表是第二次世界大战后美国国家科学基金会(NSF)的成立。

这是受到麻省理工学院副院长范内瓦尔·布什(Vannevar Bush)的《科学:没有止境的前沿》(The Endless Frontier)的启发,该书揭示了大批杰出物理学家的群聚效应在制造战争终结者原子弹的上发挥的作用。然而,这些研究人员并没有自发地融入到“曼哈顿计划”。相反,为了对抗纳粹原子弹项目的传言,美国政府与普林斯顿大学的阿尔伯特·爱因斯坦(Albert Einstein)等科学家协商,确定了该项目的各项指标,包括人员参与资格。

但是科学家们随后以前所未有的自由方式参与了这个项目,导致成本大量超支、监督相对较少和高度不确定性。后来,一枚炸弹在新墨西哥州沙漠中成功引爆,但这一惊人的成就能在多大程度上真正算作“自成体系的基础研究”的胜利呢?

布什以及那些支持成立NSF(于1950年被议会批准)的人,当然认为这是基础研究的胜利。但是,更重要的是,他们假定基础研究要实现“自由”,就必须将其移交给通常管理学科学术工作的同行评审程序。然而,“曼哈顿计划”既不是基于学科的学术工作的产物,也不是这种工作的简单应用。这是一个深度跨学科项目,不仅需要物理学家,还需要工程师和医疗专业人员。这一切都在他们的智力舒适区之外。

对于这类研究以及拟建的英国新研究机构,一个更合适的思考模型是实证选民研究的先驱唐纳德•斯托克斯(Donald Stokes)提出的“巴斯德象限”。20世纪90年代,斯托克斯在一份关于冷战后美国科学政策发展方向的建议计划中,提出了“基础”和“应用”研究之间的2x2矩阵。他承认,路易·巴斯德(Louis Pasteur)对科学的长期影响力——尤其是在流行病学和公共卫生等与流行病相关的领域——凸显了“应用”性研究指导“基础”性研究,而不是后者指导前者。

此外,巴斯德并不是个例。在20世纪,大型私人基金会(如洛克菲勒)和企业研发单位(如贝尔实验室)是分子生物学、行为科学和神经科学以及信息和通信技术(包括人工智能)取得标志性突破的主要驱动力。

当然,参与的研究人员都受过良好的学术训练。更重要的是,学术是这些突破常态化的核心,因而不仅是最初的投资人,更多人能从中受益。然而,在为此类前沿研究的实际操作和评估创造环境方面,我们至少可以确定,大学(尤其是现有学科)的表现参差不齐。

学术创新者对行内的抱怨众多,而且基本上是有道理的。不仅仅是缺乏时间和资金。同行审议本身经常搅乱对工作可信度的评估,这些评估是根据同行审议本身的条件以及更广泛的基于学科的议题来判断的,而这可能最终只对其他学科很重要。

当然,英国新的资助机构效仿了美国国防高级研究计划局(DARPA)。从“曼哈顿计划”中获得的正确教训是立即建立DARPA,而不是NSF。当然,DARPA最终还是成立了,但几乎是10年后的事情,那是对苏联1957年发射第一颗人造卫星的直接回应。到那个时候,基础/应用科学的上下之势已经形成。

英国的DARPA应该被看作是对这种论调的直接挑战。在公共资金紧张的情况下,我们为什么要假定真正根本的"基础研究"更有可能来自自封为“基础研究人员”的学科议程,而不是来自科学家、政府和公众对外部紧急情况更有组织的反应?

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick.

史蒂夫·富勒系华威大学(University of Warwick.)社会认识学的“奥古斯特·孔德”教授。

本文由陈露为泰晤士高等教育翻译。

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Reader's comments (4)

I realise this is about some UK research council on which subject I have no opinion. But I think the article rather misses the point about the Manhattan project and DARPA projects. The Manhattan project was not curiosity driven research, but it was made possible because prior to this applied project there was curiosity driven research. Presumably same for DARPA projects. My involvement in a DARPA project was made possible by my own curiosity driven research, not by any directives from a funding agency for applied research.
I agree entirely with ohrstrom's comment. The point is that "basic" (curiousity-driven, blue skies, discovery etc) gives freedom to develop new techniques, approaches, ways of thinking that can then be applied. These skills would not necessarily be available if "basic" research was not funded. The soft steer of the impact agenda nods to this and encourages those doing basic research to consider and engage with the "real world" applications that might result. If everything was only top down "applied" or "strategic" research, then we would be stuck in a loop of regurgitating accepted knowledge. Not only that, the real danger of government interference with what scientists should be researching would stifle innovation and freedom.
I agree with previous two speakers comments. The article seems to adopt linear model thinking with regards the research process which has been outdated for many years. The boundary between basic and applied research is increasingly blurred and not always easily differentiated. However, there are significant dangers associated with cutting public funding for basic research with the expectation that the private will pick up the slack. This includes underinvestment of funds in certain areas, maintaining of status quo, damages to certain disciplines e.g. theoretical mathematics and lack of skills developed to facilitate future thinking.
People who defend the public funding of research on a large scale should really avoid self-serving arguments. ‘Curiosity’ is a self-certifying term and should have no place in science policy – and truth be told, doesn’t have a technical definition anywhere else. Insofar as ‘curiosity’ means anything at all, it can be found in all intellectual endeavours, be it prompted by nature, the state, industry or simply one’s own imagination. The term should not be used prejudicially against ‘applied’ research. Here it is worth recalling Pasteur’s own maxim, ‘Discovery favours the prepared mind’. The maxim takes curiosity as given. What matters is whether one’s mind is capable to meet the challenge of solving an important problem, again regardless of its origins. Academia has done a fine job of preparing people’s minds to make significant discoveries. However, it doesn’t follow that academia has done an equally good job of providing the context for making – and to some extent, even justifying -- those discoveries. Academia’s mixed track record will undoubtedly come to the fore in the post-pandemic public research funding debate.

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