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The Scientific World Is Round

An Interview with Caroline Wagner on The New Invisible College

cover detail from the new invisible college SOURCE: Brookings Institute Press The contemporary scientific community is a complex adaptive system woven among researchers across the globe. But the rules of the system tend to block scientists in poor nations from participating. A scientific system of the future would ignore national borders and solve the problems of everyday life.

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In the research system of the future, Caroline Wagner imagines that science funders will be blind to national borders. The Canadian government would be just as happy to fund a proposal from Argentina as it would from Quebec, because the new knowledge generated will diffuse across the international scientific community, benefiting everyone around the globe.

Wagner, a research scientist at the George Washington University Center for International Science and Technology Policy, examines the complex international system that drives science and innovation in her new book, The New Invisible College. The current system has its roots in the “invisible college” of Enlightenment thinkers who laid the foundations of the modern scientific community. Published by the Brookings Institute, the book explains that the present system is not flat, as Thomas Friedman claims, but limits developing countries from collaboration on the international scientific stage. Because scientists in those countries are not familiar with the rules, norms, and nomenclature of the system, or the “new invisible college,” of the contemporary era, they cannot access the global community that propels research and innovation.

Recently, Science Progress editor-in-chief Jonathan Moreno spoke with Wagner about her book, ranging across topics from international government funding of science to intellectual property rights and the future of scientific policy for the next hundred years. Here are some highlights from the discussion, which has been edited and condensed.

Jonathan Moreno, Science Progress: What was the “invisible college” and what do you mean by the “new invisible college”?

Caroline Wagner: The “invisible college” is the term that’s often used to describe the very earliest times of what we think of modern science. If you think of modern science beginning in the 17th Century in Europe, the original folks who found each other through a network of interaction—trying to identify like-minded thinkers and so on—began to realize that they were approaching knowledge creation and thinking about knowledge in a similar way, by experimentation. So one of them coined the term, “invisible college” and said “we’re like an invisible college, operating outside of academia.”

The way we came up with the “new invisible college” is by recognizing that during the 1990s and the early 2000s, the world system of science has really changed in revolutionary ways. And yet the way in which we make and create knowledge hasn’t changed. It is still in the process of interaction, external experimentation, and checking of facts and passing that information along. But the structure and organization of that has changed. The very first title I started with was “Science Beyond the Nation-State.” Because I was trying to show that we’ve moved science now beyond the nation-state. We were really basing the book on the concept of a network structure, and so we got into this and we said, “you know this is a lot like the very first days of science.”

In a way, science has moved from this very elusive network of people in the 17th century, through a period of professionalization, through in the 20th century, a time of nation systems where nations captured science and thought of it as a national asset.

JM: You point out in a very interesting way, for example, through the Jefferson Patent Statute, that this notion of intellectual property evolved. It was the the property of individuals but then it became the property of the nation-state, so what are you implying about the future of intellectual property in your views?

CW: It’s one of the big questions in science policy in our time: how to deal with this question of intellectual property. We come from an era—and for a long time preceding—when the ideas you created were considered to be to some extent yours, and people claimed some rights over their own ideas. I’d love to do another book on intellectual property of the future because even in the book I say, I think we’re coming into a post-patent era. I think we are moving beyond a time when individuals will claim ownership over ideas. Even in our own lifetimes, we’ve move from a time when we had knowledge scarcity, and it was hard to find information—you had to cobble it together through a great deal of effort.

We have moved into a time of knowledge abundance, and a time when people like Eric von Hippel at MIT point out that a lot of innovation is being driven by the user. So as we move in that direction—and if my vision that I propose in the book in which we have much more expansion in the science in developing countries—I think that this is going to break loose this concept that there’s ownership over knowledge and ideas. Sadly, some industries are still very, very, very stuck in this idea that we have to have ownership of ideas, but my feeling is that over the next 50 years, we’ll move beyond that.

JM: I want to go back to this systems concept that underlies this book. Talk about this idea of a “complex adaptive system.” That’s the technical term you use in the book. What is a complex adaptive system, and what are some metaphors people who don’t know about this can think of, and how does that apply to science?

CW: Complex adaptive systems are around us everywhere, so we’re intuitively aware of them: Mother Nature, the invisible hand, the financial crises we’re dealing with. These are all parts of complex adaptive systems in which we interact all the time.

They are complex in that there are many different interacting pieces, and they are adaptive in that each piece of a system can adapt itself or change as it looks around it’s environment even if its not a conscious object, like an atom. And it’s a system in that there are multiple levels. The great thing is that physicists have found that complex adaptive systems operative by underlying probabilities and regulations and rules. That opens up a world of opportunity to help to not govern these systems—because you can’t govern a complex adaptive system—but you can regulate and incentivize the behaviors you would like to see.

So if we have moved science beyond these national systems and now we’re really dealing with a global system, now what we need to do is learn from complex adaptive systems structures to say, “what do we want that system to look like?” Just as the financial system, we know it doesn’t necessarily always turn out in an optimal way. You do have to provided incentives and guide and nudge that system in different directions, and I believe that’s the same for science. We shouldn’t just let science run rampant. We need to find ways to target that science and help to move it especially to help the poor, to help people in poor countries to join this system. I do think that we need to govern it, but we can’t control it.

JM: As we’re looking toward a new administration in Washington, which will be very limited in terms of it’s extent to fund new science, particularly basic research, what is your approach counsel about the role of government in science as against “letting a thousand flowers bloom”?

CW: Well first you have to look at why government funds science to begin with. And one reason that remains is the defense and military aspects of science. The second is that sometimes science is just too expensive for any single entity to fund. Who has big treasuries? Governments. That’s exactly how governments started funding science in the 19th century. Then in the 20th century we saw, rightly so, that if the public is paying for it, they want to know what they’re getting. Therefore government kept asking “what are we getting for this kind of investment”?

So that part of science funding, the need for large scale funding, the attachment of science to the military and so on, that probably will remain a part of the system in the future. But at the end of the book, I say if were going to govern science in the 21st century, one of the changes we should seek is to remove science funding from the interests of nations alone. Anybody who wants to fund science should fund simply the best science, merit only. That would mean that if you were in Canada and you receive a proposal from Argentina, you consider it equally, because the knowledge provided and created should be available to others and should be able to diffuse into the system.

My suggestion would be, while it requires quite a significant change over time, is that we move toward a much more open system of funding science and that governments provide funding into that system, but offer it blindly. What governments should do is seek ways to bring that knowledge back home, to make that knowledge locally useful.

JM: What’s your view of open access? What does open access do in this system? Is it necessary to fulfill your vision, or is there only one way to do that?

CW: What’s interesting right now is that there are many different experiments out there already to test different ways of doing this.

India, for example, has made most of its journals freely available online in order to encourage knowledge diffusion. In the physics community, they have online, where people can post work in progress. There is still a need for peer review in this global system.

At the same time, there is also this continual need for access. From the point of view of the developing countries access is critical. It’s going to be there lifeblood and it is right now one of the great barriers from entering the science system.

JM: And you point out that there are 15 or 20 countries that do 90 percent of the science? It’s expensive to get into the international science club. But what I thought was one of the most interesting points from the book was that the Internet has not been the driver of access. Explain that. Because based on the other points you are making about knowledge diffusion, you would think it has been very important in helping the have-nots get into the science community. But you say that really wasn’t what was critical in the 90s.

CW: In fact, it’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it? This came out of work I was doing for the World Bank. The bank wanted to lay fiber-optic cable all over Africa in the hopes of bringing African scientists into the global system. And what we found—this was work I was doing work for the RAND corporation—when we got into it is that this system is not flat like the Thomas Friedman concept—that only if you could gain access you’d be in. And this is where the network concept becomes so important. It is an open system in the sense that new people can come in, but it’s not flat in the sense that I can just pick up the phone call Einstein and get access to collaboration with that person. In fact it is a very highly structured system, and the structure itself, and the way in which interaction happens, is invisible. Which is why we get back to this concept of this new invisible college. The rules by which people will operate within science, the way in which they come into and operate within the system is pretty much invisible to those outside of that system and especially to people in developing countries.

When I was working with the White House science office, people would come and say “we want to sign an agreement with the United States in science so that we can have access to the science system.” And that’s not the way it works. You know that these people want to break into the system, but if they don’t understand the rules, the norms, the nomenclature that goes along with it, they can’t get in.

JM: Although the college is invisible to the people on the outside, the insiders, who rub elbows with each other, who’s in somebody’s lab may be very important 10 years down the road. And who their students are, and who their student’s students are. So there’s this old fashion sociometry of science that continues, that contributes to its invisibility if you’re not part of it. And if you are in an undeveloped country, you may be a very good scientist, but you may not have access to those kinds of relationships.

CW: The thing that we’ve found in developing countries is that most of the time, the people doing science in those countries are doing excellent science. Most of the time their connections are with people outside of their own country. So there are people, for example, I’ve interviewed in Uganda who are working with their colleagues at Sussex University in England. And so while they are a part of an invisible college, the ability to diffuse the knowledge locally is so very limited because the connection and the connectivity locally just aren’t there.

JM: So, Uganda may not benefit from the work being done, but the UK may benefit.

CW: Exactly.

JM: We’re now in the mists of this financial crisis, and it looks like we’re going to be in the midst of it for years to come. What does the new invisible college have to offer us as far as guidelines for doing science policy, investing in science in the midst of this unprecedented period in which capitalism—some of the fundamental notions of one kind of capitalism—seem to be at risk?

CW: One element of that question that is relevant is time that it takes for a new idea or innovation to enter into common usage in the marketplace. So that’s one place where it shows that that cycle can take 15 to 30 years time, depending on the innovation, the scale and scope of the production, and so on required. On the other end of that, science is really very good at solving problems, at solving even local problems.

For example, the work I did on the UN Millennium Development Task Force—we were looking at the Millennium Development Goals and trying to identify ways in which science and technology could help to solve those problems now—clean water, maternal health, getting textbooks to student who need them. These are critical needs that will transcend any financial crisis and providing for those needs will really contribute to global stability, and will contribute to the reduction of war.

We need to rethink science. We tended to think of science as the trip to the moon, as the AIDS vaccine. These are great things and I love them too. The difference is now, as opposed to previous periods, is that we have this cadre of knowledge that we can’t loose it. It’s so critical to our potential as a civilization. We have this knowledge. We can use it, if we can make it available so that people can solve problems locally.

One of the great unsung stories of science success is the agricultural extension service in the United States. It is a case where local loops and experimentation, along with integrated learning, diffused information over time. This is a beautiful example, and shouldn’t be lost on us so that we’re focused on questions like “are we funding the greatest physics ever?” Let’s look at funding that answer the question, “how do we make individual people’s lives better?”

So I think science policy now should focus on local learning. Make it a feedback loop. Hopefully we won’t loose the Internet; it’s a great tool. It is a way in which people can use this knowledge that can solve local problems.


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