Science needs to be more dangerous (Science Alert)

20 November 2013 12:19 PM

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Science needs to be more dangerous (Science Alert)

Few would argue the world isn’t facing enormous challenges: human population growth and the associated demand for resources, mass extinctions or – perhaps the biggest of all – global climate change.

We often look to science to help provide solutions. But if science is to succeed in doing so, society may need scientists to take more risks, think outside the box and, dare we say it, think “dangerously”.

We live in a world that is increasingly risk averse, obsessed with risk management and harm minimisation. This results in bizarre decisions such as children not being able to play tag for fear of injuries. Some think that such risk management creates conservatism in funding bodies that are more likely to fund safe research with assured outcomes rather than high-risk projects.

But what exactly do we mean by thinking dangerously? In short, scientists need room to propose ideas that could seem too far-fetched or controversial at first glance, such as introducing elephants to Australia to manage weeds.

Dangerous ideas always stimulate fresh thinking, sometimes with profound outcomes.

To illustrate we only need look at perhaps the most dangerous idea of all time, evolution via natural selection, simultaneously proposed by Charles Darwin and the oft forgotten and desperately unfortunate Alfred Russel Wallace. Their idea changed the very course of human history, in how we view the relationships between Earth’s many millions of different inhabitants, and our own place within it.

The most famous example of dangerous science being punished could be heliocentrism, originally proposed by Galileo. Galileo paid a high price for his theory about how Earth and other planets move in relation to a largely stationary sun. Tried by the Inquisition, he was found guilty of being suspected of heresy and spent his remaining days under arrest.

Fortunately we’ve moved on from then but dangerous thinking in science is still attacked. One must only look at the way the science of climate change, and indeed climate change scientists, are often attacked.

Or consider the response to Mark Davis' recent dangerous idea that species should be judged more by their function than their origin because some alien species have positive ecosystem impacts. More than 140 scientists replied in outrage at the suggestion that we should in any way relax efforts to control alien species, which have been devastating to so much wildlife around the world.

Thankfully, despite the rise of occupational health and safety, the dangerous idea is not quite dead yet. A recent symposium run by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW set out to propose dangerous zoological ideas. They wanted ideas that could turn out to be right, wrong or irreverent, but most certainly not boring, safe and uninventive.

Desperate times need bold ideas and bold measures, even potentially “dangerous” ones. There are risks involved, but there are risks also in not being bold and willing to try different things too, especially when the payoffs may be huge. Science is about discovery. If we want to realise its full potential we must start being more adventurous.

Peter Banks is the President of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW. He receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Hermon Slade Foundation.


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