Science needs more space

Research should be aimed at improving our lives, not increasing our bank balances, says Thomas Docherty

September 17, 2009

On a sweltering day in September 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the students and faculty of Rice University in Houston as their honorary visiting professor. His lecture affirmed the place of the university in research, specifically space exploration. In committing the US to putting a man on the Moon, Kennedy invoked the spirit of the early pioneering explorers; he reminded his audience about the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union; and he replaced crude military confrontation with a demand for technological and scientific supremacy. He used the idea of space as a way of reaffirming an identity tied firmly to place: America; within America, Houston; and within Houston, Rice University.

Space becomes place and identity when it is occupied, inhabited and given a character: the flag on the Moon marks the very national character evoked by Kennedy. It is worth considering how space - as idea and as reality - has somewhat shrunk or narrowed in our contemporary world. Our ways of thinking about space are related now to forms of thought that can damage scientific research in our universities, and at precisely the moment when governments are claiming to put science at the heart of policy.

In Kennedy's speech, space becomes almost a metaphor for research itself. He stresses that the outcomes of lunar exploration are uncertain, and that we will be seeking answers to questions that we cannot even begin to formulate: things undreamt of in our philosophies, as it were. This is edifying, exciting, visionary oratory that calls up the originary spirit of scientific research. In our time, though, does space have the same allure or significance?

Modern management prefers to think of space as a commodity. Work needs plant; plant costs money; expanding businesses or universities attract more people, who occupy more plant; people in the workplace cost money. Thus, space and its occupation are no longer matters of visionary import, but rather crude factors in tawdry economy drives. The reduction of space as a matter of efficiency leads to hot-desking or home-working, which are polite ways of telling staff they are a waste of space.

Considered in this way, space becomes a concept that drives any institution towards pusillanimous parochialism. In having to justify the use of space, we are asked to justify our occupation in a place of work. Our occupation of this instrumentalised and shrinking foreclosed space is to be justified in terms of the economic profit that can be predicted to flow from our research. Thus, "managed space" now keeps us firmly within the bounds of the Earth and of the already known. It is anathema to research as such.

The Apollo astronauts provided us with the great ecological icon of our earthly place as a fragile sphere, hanging lyrically blue and uncertain in the midst of a great unknown. The image gave us our own place back, but changed it for ever; and our identity changed with it. Yet effecting change such as this is, in many ways, the very point of universities. It is what was going on in Kennedy's professorial lecture at Rice, as he presented a new imagined identity through a visionary concept of space.

All university education brings about a form of deracination such as that felt by the astronaut. The point - the project - is to change how we inhabit the planet in every sense (scientific, sociological, cultural). It most certainly is not the case that we should be simply finding more cost-efficient ways of exploiting our space, place and identities.

Those working-class grammar-school intellectuals of the mid-20th century laid this bare: firmly identified with traditional roots, yet no longer easily able to remain at home in that space. The tension that this produces is what we call research, and it gives us new ways of living, of expanding the spirit or imagination, of changing the space where we live.

For Kennedy and Harold Wilson, science was government policy; in our more parochial time, science is instead being forced to act merely in the service of government. There is a world of difference. We might now reaffirm that space is more than money: it is possibility, imagination, opportunity.

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