Populism and polarisation ‘threaten science’, Nobel laureates say

Times Higher Education poll of globe's greatest minds highlights threat of divided politics to academia and research

August 31, 2017
Man in Trump mask
Source: Getty
Warning: Nobel winners cite divisive politics of leaders such as US president Donald Trump as a major threat to scientific progress

Political polarisation and the rise of populism represent major threats to scientific progress, Nobel laureates have warned in a Times Higher Education survey.

In a historic poll of science’s leading figures, conducted to mark the opening of THE’s World Academic Summit at King’s College London next week, some 50 Nobel prizewinners in science, medicine and economics gave their views on a diverse set of issues ranging from university funding and academic mobility to the biggest threats facing mankind.

Asked how much modern science might be affected by the rise of populism and political polarisation, 70 per cent of laureates said that they saw these twin phenomena as either a “grave threat” (40 per cent) or a “serious threat” (30 per cent) to scientific progress. Another 25 per cent perceived these trends – observed in the US under Donald Trump’s divisive presidency and in the UK regarding the political schism over Brexit – as a “moderate” threat.

Many laureates sounded the alarm over the increased willingness of some populist politicians to disregard robust evidence provided by the scientific community.

“Today, facts seem to be questioned by many people who prefer to believe rumours rather than well-established scientific facts,” said Jean-Pierre Sauvage, the University of Strasbourg academic who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016.

Peter Agre, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, who won the chemistry prize in 2003, was concerned about the manner in which Mr Trump “flaunts his ignorance” to appeal to a group of Americans who are happy to dismiss the opinions of scientists or academic experts.

Mr Trump, whom he likened to a “Batman villain” owing to his “wicked and selfish” acts while in office, was “extraordinarily uninformed and bad-natured”, said Professor Agre, who is one of the speakers at THE’s summit, which will host almost 500 global university leaders and senior staff between 3 and 5 September.

Other Nobel scientists who responded to the survey, which was assisted by the Lindau Foundation, worried that the current political climate might lead an “anti-intellectualism” that might see science funding cut in the near future.

The survey – which captured the views of about one in five living laureates in science or economics – also asked Nobel winners how important international mobility of researchers was in pushing the boundaries of science. Eighty-one per cent replied that it was either “very important” (43 per cent) or “crucial” (38 per cent), with 19 per cent stating that it was “reasonably important”. None said that it was unimportant.

“A large fraction of advances in forefront research is carried out by a very small fraction of people,” explained one US laureate, who said it was therefore crucial to draw upon the largest pool of talent available across the world. Face-to-face interactions via Skype were no substitute for the “strong personal relationships” between researchers created by international mobility, added Brian Schmidt, the astrophysicist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011. “It is only by sharing ideas from great minds and institutions [in this way] that you can hope to make the fastest progress on advancing knowledge,” said Professor Schmidt, who is now vice-chancellor of the Australian National University.

In other results, three-quarters of laureates (74 per cent) stated that they did not believe artificial intelligence or robotics would eventually result in the need for fewer human researchers, with only 24 per cent agreeing that this was a possibility and only one saying that it would definitely happen.

“Only human intelligence and reflection result in novel and original concepts,” said one laureate, while another stated that “putting a million robots together” would never reproduce the genius that allowed Mozart to write Don Giovanni or Schubert Die Winterreise.

Asked about the biggest threat to academic life, lack of money was the most frequently mentioned challenge, with two in five alarmed by the rising cost of student tuition or the underfunding of public universities. Growing inequality on campus was also cited by laureates as a cause for concern; one bemoaned the fact that “at the top private universities [in the US] the number of students with parents in the top 1 per cent [of the income scale] is equal to the number of students with parents in the bottom 50 per cent of income”.

But 84 per cent of respondents said that they “definitely” or “probably” would have been able to make their Nobel-winning discovery in today’s funding environment, with only 16 per cent answering that they would probably have been unable to.

John Gill, editor of THE, said that the survey offered an “unprecedented insight” into the views of the world’s most celebrated scientists.

"It's clear that, as a group, they harbour grave concerns about declining public support for universities, the motivations of some of our political leaders, and the likely impact of technological, demographic and environmental change in the coming years and decades,” Mr Gill said. “Most see the prioritisation of education globally as the only credible answer to solving these problems.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Planet’s growing population ‘biggest threat’ to mankind

Nobel laureates believe that population rise and environmental degradation pose the biggest threat to mankind’s future, according to the Times Higher Education/Lindau Nobel Laureate Survey.

More than a third of respondents to the survey, which asked 50 Nobel winners in science, medicine and economics about their fears for the future, selected the growing number of people on the planet and the effect this is having on its environment as the most significant danger to humanity.

Almost a quarter have similar concerns about the risk of nuclear war.

Fears about the rise of infectious diseases and drug resistance among pathogens also feature among the group, but less prominently.

Thirty-four per cent of respondents identified population rise and environmental degradation as the biggest threat to mankind, reflecting growing concerns about how Earth’s population is swelling.

Latest estimates by the United Nations suggest that the global population will increase by 3.7 billion to reach 11.2 billion, by 2100. The current tally is 7.5 billion, up from just 1.5 billion in 1900.

Science has a key role to play in solving the threat this poses, the laureates said, not only to address the technical challenges of feeding an ever-growing population, or mitigating the environmental effects of rapid urbanisation but also, crucially, to help harness the will to find solutions.

As one laureate said: “Climate change [and providing] sufficient food and fresh water for the growing population…are serious problems facing humankind. Science is needed to address these problems and also to educate the public to create the political will to solve these problems.”

Another said that the “blatant disregard for scientific opinion” surrounding the use of genetically biotechnology-enhanced crops to feed the world’s hungry was “disgusting”.

It is likely that current political concerns among the laureates has ramped up fears of nuclear war, which was the second most commonly perceived threat to humanity listed by the group, at 23 per cent.

Tensions are rising worldwide as relations between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sour. Many are concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and the mindset of Washington’s new leader, who controls the US nuclear codes.

The laureates cite “warmongering dictators” and “populist regimes in possession of nuclear weapons”, as well as terrorists harbouring nuclear capabilities among their concerns.

The spread of infectious disease by drug-resistant pathogens also weighs on the minds of the laureates surveyed, with 8 per cent of them saying that this was the biggest threat to humankind.

Around 700,000 people die every year from infections caused by pathogens that are resistant to antimicrobials. But a recent review of the situation, commissioned by the UK government in 2014, suggests that this could rise to 10 million a year by 2050.

Critics have argued that the data used to come to this conclusion are flawed, but it remains one of the few predictions of how quickly resistance to infections is spreading. 

Holly Else

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