Sign up

An extract from Peter Gluckman’s speech to the Endless Frontier Symposium

In September 2022 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), United States, in collaboration with the Kavli Foundation and Issues in Science and Technology, hosted the “Endless Frontier Symposium 2022: Research and Higher Education Institutions for the Next 75 Years.”

The symposium brought together experts and leaders from across the world to consider transformations needed from research and higher education institutions in the next 75 years to better address complex, global challenges like the impacts of pandemics, advancing innovation, building and nurturing capacity.

Address by Peter Gluckman

The Endless Frontier has been arguably the most influential report on science and public policy. It originated in response to a request from President Roosevelt in 1944 to his wartime science advisor, Vannevar Bush. The report in 1945 to President Truman set the basis of science and innovation policy not only for the USA but was very influential across the developed world. But while the report was written some 77 years ago and its core tenets are undeniable, the context of today is vastly different and suggests that some shift in emphasis and additional thinking is urgently needed.

The structures of science that emerged from his report are tightly embedded. Science has been successful in terms of those post-war framings, and massive and successful investments have followed as has been demonstrated by the close and positive relationship between economic growth and R&D investment across the OECD.  But there is more than simply the need to promote economic growth, security and medical research which were the focus the report. I would argue that we urgently need deep reflection on the much broader nature of science and its value to society.

it is increasingly obvious that the existential and other major threats facing society – be them climate change and its consequences, environmental degradation, loss of social cohesion and undermining of democracy, increasing concerns about mental health, adjusting to, or regulating new technologies, and the many other actual or implied objectives for healthy societies require additional and still evolving modalities of research. These will need to extend beyond the traditional models of investigator-led and even mission-led research.

We are now much more conscious of the need for science systems to overtly support translation into social and environmental domains and into other policies and actions. Too often the technological sciences have considered the social implications of their work as an afterthought. This is increasingly problematic.

On these incredibly significant challenges as defined by the Sustainable Development Goals and despite enormous investments of public funds in science in recent decades, especially in high income countries who also signed up to these goals, progress on the SDGs has, by any measure, been disappointing. Even in the USA, for all the investment in medical research the major health concerns of obesity and NCDs, mental health, addictions etc. have not fallen. Confidence in public health science was not universal as was shown during the pandemic and opioid crises.

What has been the impact of research funding in those decades? Certainly, there has been economic growth and technological developments and improvements in our knowledge of the universe at every level from the cosmos to our molecular being. I do not want in any way to underestimate the critical value and importance of that research and it must continue. 

But we should not ignore another enormous impact: that is the enormous growth in the industry of academic science. I use the term industry advisably. Too often the major beneficiaries of the research dollar have been the academic community itself, both its institutions and actors, where the goals of science have too often have not been in developing knowledge for societal benefit but producing outputs that assist promotions, tenure, and institutional reputation or otherwise  benefit of actors within and without academia. In that context the investments can be biased away from the very areas of greatest need.

In a world where cynicism towards elites and belief (or not) in science is increasingly a badge of partisan identity, science needs to look to itself. Unfortunately, the very desirable mechanisms that characterize our academic industry and were intended to enhance performance, also created the incentives that determine behavior such as bibliometrics and rankings. The behavior of institutions and funders embed this industry, making change difficult.  DORA is signed up to but the very institutions that sign up continue to use impact factors and citation counts to manage their staff. Academies and funders are similarly influenced.

There is growing consensus reflected in reports ranging from that of the ISC, in its report Unleashing Science, to the work of the Global Sustainability development Report that there is a greater and urgent need for research which must be stakeholder engaged, and co-designed. Yet transdisciplinary is not well funded or supported and there remain questions about what it means, how it is assessed, what outputs are produced and thus what should determine its funding.

Without diminishing in any way the value of traditional disciplinary and discovery science, there is a real urgency for new models of research which address the need for genuine transdisciplinary approaches (i.e. with genuine stakeholder engagement from the outset, mission-led, bridging across disciplines and particularly integrating the social sciences, using systems based approaches and recognizing a broader range of impactful outputs). This suggests that change is needed in our industry. 

Mission led science has shown its value in projects ranging from the human genome to the discovery of the Higgs’ boson. But we need new kinds of missions focused on what society need, what the planet needs. These need to be designed and funded in new ways. The ISC last year after 2 years of consultation released a report entitled Unleashing Science that suggested one possible way ahead. The characteristics of the needed research include co-design, transdisciplinarity, a systems approach and a focus on major gaps and needs as locally defined. After multiple discussions including with the Global Research Council and presentations at the High-Level Political forum, we established the Global Commission on Science Missions for Sustainability chaired by the former Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bukova and the former administrator of UNDP, Helen Clark to explore some ways to proceed. Supported by a technical advisory group of science policy experts, it will suggest a mechanism to try and accelerate progress on the science-informed solutions to the broad range of sustainability challenges ahead.

Vannevar Bush encouraged scientists to support economic, social and industrial growth in one way, and his impact on our own industry was enormous. But industries evolve and so must ours. The frontiers are not endless, the planetary boundaries are indeed, very close.

Skip to content