Slow Science

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.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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