A study published in the February 2018 issue of Science and Public Policy and entitled “European Paradox or Delusion—Are European Science and Economy Outdated?” gives rise to concerns. It states that the European Union (EU) science and technology problem is not due to inefficient utilisation by European industries of what is considered as a top level European science, but rather that “Europe lags far behind the USA in the production of important, highly cited research”. The authors, Alonso Rodríguez-Navarro and Francis Narin, consider “that there is a consistent weakening of European science as one ascends the citation scale” of scientific articles, while the USA is producing more very highly cited scientific papers and obtains more Nobel prizes.
According to the authors, “the number of important discoveries per inhabitant is at least three times higher in the USA than in the EU”. The authors blame misguided research and funding policies. This is where I beg to differ. The trend observed by the authors is in fact longstanding, and has not worsened since the 1990’s, while in my opinion European research and funding policies have actually improved. So, is it worth considering that Europe is suffering from a more general cultural problem?
One aspect of this problem can be called “postmodernism”. This worldview is guided by what has been called “Western Guilt” over historical events, whether real or imagined. Postmodernism is also present in North America, where it expresses itself inter alia as an exacerbated form of “political correctness” (which is now also spreading to Europe). However, unlike in the USA, postmodernism has severely affected science and technology in the EU, and this can be illustrated by the “precautionary principle” (PP). The problem is of course not that political authorities take common sense measures to protect their citizens. The problem is that the PP is usually not properly understood and is often used by politicians to promote extreme measures, such as scientifically unjustified bans, in order to avoid being criticised as lax and negligent in the media and social media.
To further understand how the postmodernist ideology affects science and technologies, it is necessary to explain it further. Postmodernism can be defined as a general critique of Western institutions (e.g. the nation states considered responsible for World Wars) and cultural identity (considered as imperialistic and oppressive). Postmodernism also tends to reject Enlightenment values (i.e. the belief in human progress and the universality of truth). Applied to science (http://embor.embopress.org/content/13/10/885), it means the latter is also a force for domination and even oppression. An obvious consequence of such an ideology is that science is considered too risky and therefore cannot be left to scientists, but has to be controlled by “citizens”, or their representatives.
It is of course legitimate that some scientific projects are supported more than others, for political reasons. The problem arises when the issue of “risks” becomes central to decision making, while benefits are ignored. From the 60’s onwards, and increasingly since the end of the 1980’s, avoiding all risks at all costs has become mainstream thinking in Europe. Europe should really consider the risks for innovation, and also for science, and even for its civilization, of this postmodern obsession with risk.
The problem is even more serious as postmodernism has also deconstructed the universality of truth. As an example of misplaced democracy, everybody should be entitled to their own “truth” in the postmodern world. Science being considered as an opinion just like any other opinion according to postmodern sociologists…
Europe is now facing a choice: either remaining a “Risk Society” or finally becoming a true “Knowledge Society”. It is a difficult choice since it implies moving away from a form of politically correct thinking which has become imperialistic and even oppressive…
This post is also available in: FR (FR)DE (DE)