I spent my Christmas on sick leave from my university, suffering from a stress-related illness. OK, so I'm a periodic depressive of a particular sort. A lot of scientists and thinkers are, alternating between great activity and deep lassitude. Why am I telling you? Well, because in Britain at least, the creeping managerial culture of universities makes it very difficult for people like this to flourish. In a misguided attempt to put accountancy procedures in place to obtain value for money out of science, civil servants are in danger of driving out the creativity and innovation that lie at the heart of the story of western science.
It is natural for governments to expect results from science, but they cannot be guaranteed. However, there are two positive things you can do, each of which makes more sense in relation to the other than either does alone. The first is to acknowledge the precedence of observation over experiment. The second is to take the 'interpretive dilemma' to heart.
When bureaucrats try to manage science they want experiments done. That is what they think good science does. It is a convenient belief because research-grant monies can be easily justified when measurable results are produced to a pre-agreed schedule. But much (perhaps most) great science has been based predominantly on observation and has no timetable. Newton and Darwin did very few significant experiments, but both exercised immense observational acumen on a daily basis. Both also took so long to publish their insights that they would undoubtedly both have been fired from modern universities for failing to produce. But the mentality that finds it so hard to thrive in a regularized accountancy culture is the one most suited to long and profound contemplation of the meaning of phenomena. It is the one most likely to crack through the interpretive dilemma.
The interpretive dilemma simply states that in order to interpret something, one must have decided that there is something to interpret and, in focussing on that something, one has already formed a strong idea of what it is.
For example, as an archaeologist, I am used to interpreting burials. But when I am trying to uncover the meaning of a particular burial, I hardly stop to think that I have already decided the most important thing about it when I called it a 'burial'. In casually naming it, prior to conducting certain measurable experiments (dating and technological analyses) I have already dramatically lessened the possibility of understanding anything new and surprising.
By rethinking the nature of apparent 'burials'—a process that involved absolutely no experimentation or new excavation at all, but which nevertheless took up several years thinking time—I have recently suggested that what early humans were up to was very different to what we hitherto thought, and that the birth of religion and the emergence of social cohesion was rooted in atavistic practices of human sacrifice and ceremonial cannibalism. The ostensible 'burials' that archaeologists have dated to the period of the last Ice Age are in fact the remains of elaborate, communally-approved ritual murders.
Mr President, space to rethink the apparently familiar is essential to all good science. It means that you need to trust scientists to follow their instincts, and not make them accountable every year for a string of tangible results. Look after your science contemplatives and they will look after you.
Archeologist, FSA Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and a member of CIFA (Centre for International Forensic Assistance)
University of Bradford, UK
Author of The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture, and The Buried Soul.