Collegium Basilea

(Institute of Advanced Study)

Extended Mission Statement

The statutory mission of the Collegium Basilea is "the promotion of independent scientific research, above all in the fields of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, for which, by reason of its transdisciplinary or innovative nature it is difficult to find support elsewehere. The research results shall be made generally available."

The interpretation of this bald statement requires some elaboration. The sentiments which led to the formulation of the statutory mission in its current form as given above seem to reflect a recurrent problem, and the more one looks at the history of the advance of knowledge over the past few millenia the more striking is this recurrence. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twenty first century the disinterested pursuit of knowledge appears to be under particularly severe and growing threat. It is paradoxical that the growth of this threat is accompanied by strongly worded exhortations pointing out its dangers in the editorial pages of distinguished and influential periodicals. One normally expects that apprehension of a danger leads to its neutralization. The fact that it is not so in this case (and other examples will come to mind) hints at some unknown features governing the evolution of civilization, which in principle it may be impossible to control! Until this impossibility is incontrovertibly demonstrated, however, we should continue to explore the mechanisms of this evolution in the hope that we may be able to steer it in a favourable direction.

A major element of this problem is the strong linkage between (large) commercial corporations and academic research. In the USA, following the dubiously motivated Bayh-Dole Act passed by Congress in 1980, which gave universities the right to apply for patents arising from publicly funded research, technology transfer from universities has become a big business, estimated to generate revenues of about forty milliard dollars a year. The trend has been widely followed in Europe and elsewhere, with European pharmaceutical companies in the van of seeking deals with university departments whereby the company acquires first rights to discoveries in exchange for funding.

While some companies have an excellent record of supporting academic research without any attached conditions, in many other cases such links cast grave doubt on the genuine independence of science. Prior to the first world war, a similar entrainment of science was taking place in Germany, in that case fostered largely by the state in order to build up military potential. In 1915 Frederick Scott Oliver observed that "The close alliance between learning and bureaucracy does not seem to be altogether satisfactory. For thought loses its fine temper in the red heat of political controversy. By turning utilitarian it ceases to be universal; and what is perhaps even worse, it ceases to be free. It tends more and more to become the mere inventor of things which sell at a profit; less and less the discoverer of high principles which the gods have hidden out of sight." In the past few decades there have been comments on the lack of independence among scientists investigating the possibility of adverse effects of pesticides and genetically modified organisms on ecosystems, and the current furore over spongiform encephalopathies has again brought similar arguments to the fore. It is hardly surprising that as a result scientists have largely lost the esteem in which they were formerly held by the public; those who still live up to their responsibilities to public service are largely overwhelmed by those who call themselves 'scientists' because of their paper credentials, but who neglect their obligations.

Traditionally (but by no means exclusively), the university has been the main place of work for research scientists. Despite being one of the oldest occidental institutions with a continuous history, the university today is undergoing such radical transformation that it looks as though continuity with the ethos of the past will soon be broken. Of course in some respects the university is always evolving, and one may trace a certain development from the medieval university of faith, to the university of reason (in the so-called age of enlightenment), to the university of discovery (the powerhouse of science in the 19th and 20th centuries), and now to the university of calculation, a mere and possibly minor part of a bureaucratically managed system of higher education. The university of calculation is supposed to consume applied knowledge at incredible speed and have no time for looking at fundamentals; instead of learning for its own sake, vast numbers of students have to be trained in myriads of specialities, each requiring onerous supporting technology. Although the need for massive reintegration of knowledge is generally perceived, the university of calculation is unlikely to be able to fulfil this need since it will essentially function like a factory. The dichotomy between maintaining access and supporting genuine research is likely to be decided in favour of the former for government funded institutions. They will be organized as profit centres in which financing and throughput will be the main considerations. Genuine research, increasingly financed by private funds, will tend to migrate to small elite institutions, which will themselves have constantly to struggle to ensure that they retain a credible independence.

The changing modes of 'knowledge production' have been recently analyzed by Michael Gibbons and colleagues, who introduced the terms 'Mode 1' and 'Mode 2' (1994). The former describes the work of the traditional university, rooted in ancient disciplines, operating in its own context and ensuring quality by a rigorous system of peer review, and characterized by an emphasis on individual creativity. The latter, in contrast, produces knowledge in the context of its application, is problem or project oriented and hence transdisciplinary and emphasizes team work, and is much more organizationally diverse. The reader will recognize that 'Mode 2' describes the typical modern research unit of a large commercial enterprise. It may be with mild shock that one also recognizes 'Mode 2' concepts operating in pre-first world war Germany (the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes) and most universities today. In fact, the now almost universally espoused system of financing research by competitive grants awarded on the basis of a detailed research plan, especially in the natural sciences, means that even purely academic establishments receiving no industrial funding are essentially operating in 'Mode 2'.

Although Mode 2 appears to be a modern and efficient method of knowledge production, there is a great danger that it will lead to ultimate sterility because it allows no place for long term reflexion on fundamentals other than at a very superficial level. In practice it epitomizes the linkage between learning and bureaucracy rightly deplored by F.S. Oliver. The most powerful instrument which the bureaucracy uses to control learning is, of course, the grant award system. When it migrated across the Atlantic to Britain in the 1960's, distinguished voices, such as that of Sir Peter Medawar, were raised in protest - but to no avail; the system has become firmly entrenched seemingly everywhere, and even Russia has jumped on the bandwagon, thereby losing one of the few advantages enjoyed by scientists working there to offset the many disadvantages. To combat this trend, the Collegium Basilea supports research without awarding grants in the conventional manner, i.e. proposals may be brief (e.g. "investigations in theoretical physics"), they do not require a minutely detailed research plan, and the main instrument of evaluation apart from the creative roots and potential importance of the work is the past research record of the applicant. By this means the Collegium plays its part in the vital work to ensure that institutions in which genuine scientific research continues to be carried out are not entrained into the Mode 2 world.

What of trans- (or inter- or multi-) disciplinarity? These have become popular words and their supporters delight in differentiating between them. Undoubtedly, the specialist acting unilaterally has a limited value nowadays because most new developments require knowledge and coordination of many sciences, but transdisciplinarity as commonly applied seems to mean little more than sciolism—superficial, fragmented knowledge of little use for anything concrete or definite. It is salutary to recall the words of W.V. Harcourt at the first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831 in York: "The chief interpreters of nature have always been those who grasped the widest fields of inquiry, who have listened with the most universal curiosity to all information, and felt an interest in every question which the one great system of nature presents. Nothing could be more disastrous than that one of the sciences should be in any manner dissociated from another." Harcourt's contemporary Whewell (who coined the word 'scientist') also laments the tendency of the different sciences to separate from ane another, and praised Mary Somerville for her contribution to bringing together the cultivators of different departments. It is in that spirit that the Collegium Basilea promotes collegiate collaboration beweeen specialists.

Therefore, the Collegium Basilea sees its mission as primarily promoting map-making and bridge-building in the complex world of contemporary investigation, encouraging a common language between specialists, and above all to uphold critical, independent thinking in an age of unthinking convergence towards uniformity. Through its international network of members and associates, the Collegium can draw on intellectual reservoirs of great depth and breadth, and will constantly strive to combine insight, knowledge and orginal thinking to create new opportunities for incisive research.

Jeremy Ramsden

President of the Collegium Basilea

The views expressed in this statement are the personal views of the President and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the Collegium Basilea. Nevertheless, the Governing Board has determined that nothing in this article contradicts the policy of the Collegium.