|The Ivory Tower. |
Image from The Neverending Story.
Yes, science works, no need to call me names. But science doesn’t work as good as it could, not as good as it should, not as good as we need it to work.
Scientific institutions and scientific management are stuck in the last century. The academic system today is in no shape to cope with the demands of high connectivity in a global and increasing workforce, is unable to deal with complex trans-national and interdisciplinary problems, and can’t handle the amplification of social feedback that information technology has brought.The academic system, in brief, has the same problem as our political, social and economic systems.
The biggest challenge mankind faces today is not the development of some breakthrough technology. The biggest challenge is to create a society whose institutions integrate the knowledge that must precede any such technology, including knowledge about these institutions themselves. All of our big problems today speak of our failure, not to envision solutions, but to turn our ideas and knowledge into reality.
It’s not that we lack creativity. It’s that the kind of creativity that comes to us naturally does not latch upon problems evolution didn’t endow us to register to begin with. We do not comprehend the interplay of large crowds of people and are unable to individually beat our own psychology, rooted in groups of tens to hundreds, not billions. To arrange our living together in groups larger than we can intuit, we agree on rules of conduct and incentives that align our individual actions with collective trends so that both are to our benefit. This requires systems design. It requires science. And before that it requires we acknowledge the problem.
But we watch. We watch with bewilderment as a video of sunrise is broadcast on Tiananmen square where thick smog forces onlookers to wear breathing masks. We watch with horrified fascination video footages of the big garbage swirl and of birds dying from indigestible plastic pieces. We watch, hypnotized, replays of negotiation failures that make our adaptation to climate change more costly by the day. The way we have arranged, organized, policed and institutionalized our living together leaves us to watch ourselves watching, stunned at our own inability to change anything about it.
And scientists, the ones who should be able to analyze the situation and to devise a solution aren’t any better.
Scientists, of course, know exactly what is wrong with academia. Leaving aside that no two of them can agree on how to do it, they know how to solve the problem. There’s no shortage of proposals for how to fix peer review and scientific publishing and for how to better distribute resources. Futures markets, auction markets, lottery systems, open peer review, and dozens of alternative metrics have been suggested, we’ve seen it all. They write papers about it and send them for peer review. The rest is the same old he-said-she-said.
So far, scientists miserably failed to adapt the academic system to the changing demands of the 21st century. They belabor the problem and devise solutions, but are unable to implement them. And in the ocean of conference proceedings they watch the giant abstract swirl.
Academia mirrors the problem of our societies in a nutshell. The members of the academe, they’re all talk but no walk. We are being told that scientists are studying now the interconnectivity of the multi-layered networks that govern our societies, and we ask for answers and advice, we ask to be informed about how to solve our problems. There’s nobody else to solve these problems.
Social systems adapt to changing demands much like organisms do, by gradual modification and selection. But this process takes time – a lot of time – and it’s time we cannot afford. The only way to accelerate this adaption is the scientific method: a targeted, controlled, and recorded series of modifications. Many existing projects today aim to track and analyze the complex interactions of our highly interwoven networked world. But not a single one of these projects addresses the real problem, which is how to use this knowledge in the very systems that are being studied. It is this feedback of knowledge about the system back into the system that is necessary for our institutions to adapt. It requires a self-consistent scientific approach to institutional design, an approach that doesn’t exist and is nowhere near existence.
We need scientists to help us create social systems that organize our living together in groups so large that our evolutionary brains, trained to deal with small groups, cannot cope with. Trial and error will take too long and the errors are too costly now. But scientists are like the overweight doctor preaching the benefits of blood-pressure regulation, evidently unable to solve their own problems first. They presently can’t help us solve any problems, and we shouldn’t listen to their advice until they’ve solved their own problems.
Science is the only news, but it’s not only news. It’s the canary in the coal mine. Better watch it closely.