Slow Science

Posted on Monday, September 26th, 02011 by Alex Mensing
link Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments

When it comes to  society’s propensity for compromisingly short-term thinking, not even the scientific community is immune. A recent post on John Horgan‘s blog at Scientific American discussed a few of the trends responsible for the hastiness (and resulting shoddiness) of too much of our scientific activity. Among the trends is an overemphasis on ‘popular’ research topics, which statistician John Ioaniddis has shown leads to more inaccurate publications.

The likelihood that a claim will hold up, he argues, is inversely proportional to the initial attention that it gets from other scientists and the media. Large, fast-moving, “hot” fields, which can yield large financial payoffs, tend to have the worst records.

Thankfully, the primary subject of Horgan’s post is not fast-paced failure, but an interesting effort to promote slower, better science. A group of scientists based in Germany have published “The Slow Science Manifesto,” which praises the essential nature of “accelerated science of the early 21st century” but scolds those who demand that scientists constantly produce research with immediate practical application and clear meaning and intention. “Science needs time,” they assert, “to think.”

Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadi­ly, with jerky moves and un­predict­able leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done.

The Manifesto concludes: “We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.” This statement corresponds neatly to a sentence from a chapter (titled, not incidentally, “Slow Science”) in Stewart Brand’s book The Clock of the Long Now: “Rigorously collected old data keeps finding new uses.” Brand proposes that the Long Now Library could help facilitate the kinds of long-term projects that produce large useful data sets by helping scientists overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of such endeavors. Perhaps the authors of The Slow Science Manifesto would agree with his analysis:

…in light of their great accumulative value, why are long-term scientific studies so rare? Well, (1) they’re not about proving or disproving hypotheses, the coin of the scientific realm; (2) they don’t generate quick papers, the coin of a scientific career; (3) they bear no relation to scientific fashion, where the excitement is; (4) they’re not subject to money-making patent or copyright; (5) the few that exist usually die when their primary researcher dies; (6) they’re extremely difficult to maintain funding for; and (7) ever growing archives are an expensive hassle to service and keep accessible.

The Long Now Foundation has, in fact, already had the opportunity to support a long-term scientific project. In 02008 the Nevada System of Higher Education received funding from the National Science Foundation to study climate change in the Great Basin. As part of the study they needed to install permanent climate monitoring stations over a wide range of elevation levels and ecosystem types, and the Long Now Foundation’s property in Nevada provided some key locations for constructing stations. If the project overcomes the challenges and pressures that drove a group of frustrated scientists to publish their Slow Science Manifesto, it will one day become a valuable bank of ‘rigorously collected old data,’ and future scientists will continue to use and reuse it for purposes that, quite frankly, we’ve never even dreamed of.

  • Excellent points. Science should not be Product Engineering, driven by markets and sales. Cleansing the non-scientists of the expectation of particular and practical results might be challenging, however. I hope that this effort succeeds. 

  • As an NSF Program Director, I can only hope that proposals that take a Slow Science approach make it through the current peer-review system. Usually, they get slaughtered. Under the current budget climate, NSF is being hard-pressed to come up with ‘relevant’ science, and that inevitably pushes Fast Science.

  • If one understands that science is not just a way of
    thinking but a way of being, then a sense of generosity of time becomes one of
    the requisites for the experience of science. The sense of generosity of time
    enables us to transcend the narrow dictates of the ego. It enables us to ask
    more open questions and be more receptive to unimagined answers. It enables us
    to better tap into the vast knowledge of our great subconscious and allow it to
    ferment more extensive and insightful ideas.  It enables us to listen more carefully. (How
    often do you hear so-called scientists say they simply to not have time to
    reflect on questions – often this is the ego talking, denying the reflection of
    inconvenient notions).

    Arguably many of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution
    have been caused by a lack of generosity of time. The sense of time deprivation
    inherent in the modern corporation with its short term imperatives is a prime
    reason why they actively destroys the state of science in our communities.

    Thank you for giving the time to promote this vital discussion.

  • Luke Schubert

    Just like to point out that the picture is of an Australian experiment

  • Good post on why Science takes time. 

  • Good post on why Science takes time. 

  • Nick

    I am continually surprised by how many things that I did 20-30 years ago have provided data sets that are being used (mostly by other people) to test hypotheses are confirm the results of new methods or techniques.   Life long commitment to research and preservation of data sets is of great value

  • Cormac

    A most interesting post and a very interesting project. I’m delighted to hear you are funding a climate project, long-term planning needed here if ever we needed it.

    I think the ‘slow science’ project makes a lot of sense, delighted to see their emphasis on national academies of science. I despair of the ‘new study shows cats have 5 legs’ approach of much of science journalism

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