Richard Feynman vs wayward national science priorities

From my recent review of The Meaning of It All:

In this month alone, Britain’s new chief scientist Sir Mark Walpole said his top priority was ‘ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth’, the president of Canada’s National Research Council said it will now focus only on research that is ‘commercially viable’, and the US Government just appointed a climate change skeptic to chair the House Science Committee who’s going to change the rules so only ‘groundbreaking’ research is funded. Back here in Australia, CSIRO has entered into a research agreement with BP, the company responsible for the worst accidental marine oil spill in history, to help them survey the pristine Bight ecosystem for oil reserves, and in certain divisions staff are being told to suspend nearly all communication of their work to the public and redirect the efforts toward building industry partnerships.

Public science in these countries seems to be in the hands of people who, at best, misunderstand the nature of science, or at worst are actively trying to undermine it. For clarity in these troubled times – to seek confirmation you’re not the one who’s going mad – there’s one person you turn to. The wonderful, incomparable, Richard P. Feynman.

Over the last few weeks, policymakers across the western world have chosen to take science in troublesome directions. It’s made me want to revisit what the experts say about the true nature and value of science – is research only justifiable in terms of short-term return on investment, or is there something deeper and more precious at stake?

As the go-to easy-read book on the value of science, The Meaning of it All by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman is one of the first things you reach for in times like this. I’ve just re-read this very short, very punchy book and posted my review here. Head over if you’re interested to read Feynman’s thoughts on why we should embrace uncertainty, and my thoughts on why misunderstanding the nature of science causes more harm than misunderstanding its findings.


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