Aims and Scope

Development is often associated, among other factors, with industrialisation, technological advancement, or social modernisation [1]. As a consequence, modern society tends to view science and scientific research as the means to pursue these objectives, depriving them of the purpose for which they were originally conceived: the extension of certified knowledge [2]. For survival reasons, individual researchers and research communities have hence gradually adapted to societal demands, increasingly devoting themselves to studies promising some sort of perceivable advancement, and eventually setting aside the pursuit of fundamental research due to shortage of funding.

If, however, technology, industrialisation, and social modernisation are to be viewed as means to expand the freedom enjoyed by the members of the society, concentrating on this overarching objective is as essential as focusing on this specially chosen list of instruments [1].

For as we see it, restoring freedom in science involves the rehabilitation of its founding values, as well as the weakening of its link to the demands of the market. While science is frequently understood as ‘the means towards an end’, anyone who has chosen to make it their profession will perceive it, above all, as the application of human creative skills and imagination to the thorough comprehension of Nature and, as such, as an integral part of culture. Consequently, science should, in our view, rather be given a dual value: that of means (aimed at the achievement of technological and social advancement), and that of end (inasmuch it endlessly enriches human knowledge with revolutionary ideas and findings).

With the aim of fostering the values of freedom and autonomy of science, we wish to refer to what Robert K. Merton, in his 1942 book ‘The Sociology of Science’, defined as the four imperatives of science: universalism, communism, disinterestedness and organised skepticism [2]. In what follows, we reintroduce these imperatives, and we attempt to reimagine them in the light of today’s scientific environment [3].

(1) Universalism: scientific research should be open to all talents, regardless of their race, nationality, religion, gender or class, yet any scientific claim ought to be evaluated independently of these categories. This crucial objective has a twofold perspective: the free accessibility of scientific material, and the canon of ‘truth-claims whatever their source’, (i.e., the acceptance or rejection of claims entering the lists of science is not to depend on the personal or social attributes of their protagonist; their race, nationality, religion, class, and personal qualities are as such irrelevant [2]). The correct methodology towards the application of the latter canon is of a controversial nature, it is hence worthwhile to spend a few words on it. As much as cultures and beliefs have been able to give rise to the most diversified forms of literature, so the representation of science in different cultures may also develop following on from different flavours. A firm standardisation of the scientific method would inevitably lead to the prevalence of one approach over another and this, if taken to the extreme, may lead to the exclusion of certain nations and cultures from pursuing science as demanded by the field’s leading countries. A way around is thus to seek the universalism of scientific concepts while maintaining the science of universal access.

(2) Communism [4]: scientific discoveries shall be considered of everyone and for everyone. The scientist should, ideally, be able to work with the aim of increasing the knowledge of humanity as a whole. The pursuit of this goal requires scientists to give up any sort of monopoly of their ideas in exchange for the mere intellectual recognition and esteem. This remarkable practice is nowadays deeply rooted in the methods of science, it is thus compelling to be likewise aware of the risks that this may entail. The success of a scientific career is so strongly related to the appreciation that each researcher has managed to gather with their contributions, that the recognition of their own ‘intellectual property’ often becomes scientists’ most dominant goal. As long as such property is institutionally embedded among the objectives of scientific research, one of its most fundamental aspects may remain overlooked: science is not the outcome of a few isolated scholars, but rather the fruitful result of secular mutual efforts. The inclination to single out the contribution of each researcher to any novel scientific theories might ultimately give rise to unrealistic or partial assessments.

(3) Disinterestedness: while undoubtedly being related to the historical context in which they develop [5], philosophical as well as scientific concepts shall emerge from the study of facts and what the truth that the facts bear out. Although researchers certainly use their intuition, guesses and beliefs to produce new findings, they should not be diverted by what they wish to believe [6]. In an attempt to pursue and ensure this sense of impartiality, scientific findings are subjected to intense verification and scrutiny. This is achieved through a dense structure of control, whose drawback is having given scientific journals the ability to determine which research areas are most relevant, as well as having entrusted peer-review with the right and duty to judge what is right or wrong in the continuous evolution of science. But can disinterestedness be adequately reassured by those who have themselves economic (e.g., journals), political (e.g., institutions), or personal interests (e.g., peers)?

(4) Organised skepticism: An integral part of the growth and development of scientific ideas is the possibility of constantly questioning the current established scientific theories. Science must be given the freedom to doubt. Nevertheless, research funding is often allocated through schemes that seem to disregard the operating principles of the scientific method itself. Changes of course as well as detection of errors shall be considered a part of the scientific method, whose aim is the creation of a deeper understanding of Nature.

Although these imperatives might be considered in the collective imagination as part of foundations of science itself, in practice none of them are effectively pursued as an objective and they are often scarcely reflected on by individual scientists, research communities and funding agencies.

It is certainly possible to assign a higher or lower priority to each of these imperatives, or to disregard the feasibility of any of them. As an example, one could argue that any solution requiring a removal of competition in human activities may result in a slowdown in the rate of their achievements, or that competition is too inherently rooted in humankind to be able to evade it. Another common concern is that any change in the current publishing system must be able to face the necessity of finding alternative methods to evaluate the scientific contributions of each researcher in the short term, if referring to the virtual citation index attributed by journals will no longer be feasible. Each of these criticisms is admittedly well-founded, and a definitive resolution to these controversies does not exist yet. However, rather than viewing these concerns as a limiting factor for the applicability of these imperatives, we interpret them as an indication that a collective discussion on those issues is needed.

It is in this regard that we are organising a series of events, inviting not only leading experts, but also students and the staff in-house to join the discussion and to re-examine the current structure of the scientific academic system together, in the hope of establishing awareness of the existing controversies, and discussing solutions and alternatives.

[1] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press (1999).

[2] Robert K. Merton, The sociology of science: Theoretical and empirical investigations, University of Chicago Press (1942).

[3] Clearly, an examination of the ethos of modern science is only a limited introduction to a larger problem. The most diverse social structures provide some measures of support to science and each of them does it in accordance with its economical, political and moral establishments. Not all countries have the same amount of financial resources at their disposal, nor does every citizen on Earth enjoy the same freedoms and rights. Although it is not among the aims of this short text to deepen such aspects, we would like to stress that not all the solutions proposed and analysed here are equally applicable in every socio-political context, and it is undoubtedly essential to take this into account when discussing strategies towards the fulfillment of any of the objectives proposed above.

[4] We have chosen to use this expression so as to maintain Merton’s original definition. However, while here we attribute to this term a positive connotation, by no means this shall be intended as a reference to any of the regimes that in the name of communism gave rise to totalitarianisms, political repressions and restrictions of human rights.

[5] Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago University Press (1979).

[6] In writing this sentence, we took inspiration from the BBC interview to the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1959).