The stealth route to the blue skies

June 25, 2009

Researchers have become experts in "stealth research" - taking money with the promise of a specific goal and then using it to support a wider "space of play".

Steven Shapin, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, told an audience at the Royal Society that such "cynical manoeuvres" were now commonplace - but added they were not a sustainable way to support blue-skies research.

"Can we live with a world where these free spaces are supported by cynical manoeuvres?" he asked. "Yes we can, but it would be better not to. We can survive for quite a long time on this principle of stealth, but not for ever, and I would not like to see these free spaces squeezed."

Professor Shapin, who was speaking at an event in London last week, also said that despite the fixation with the utilitarian benefit of their work, researchers should be pushing for an unfettered "space to play" while accepting that less money would be up for grabs.

Adding his voice to the growing clamour for the protection of curiosity-driven research, he said that instead of paying lip service to economic impact in their attempts to win funding, scholars should make the case for scientific inquiry for its own sake. However, he warned that this would mean them accepting a lower level of financial support.

"The democratic instinct is to justify the support (for scientific) inquiry in terms of the gratification of the body politic - that which we can envisage, know the value of and appreciate," he said. "But what we would be comfortable defending is a space of inquiry that is as decoupled as we can envisage from institutional demands."

The ideal, he said, was a system where "whatever level of expenditure, people can play". He said that such a system was "bound to be a cauldron of innovation".

Professor Shapin, author of The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), added that it would be an "interesting intervention" to see what could be achieved by scientists if they received less money.

"It would be interesting to have a retreat and see what a smart scientist could do on the cheap," he said.

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