Monday, October 25

Soledad Gallego-Díaz: Border without limits | Ideas


A group of American scientists in Berkeley, California, including engineer Vannevar Bush (third from left), on March 29, 1940.
A group of American scientists in Berkeley, California, including engineer Vannevar Bush (third from left), on March 29, 1940.Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

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The only positive consequence of the covid-19 pandemic has been the renewed prestige that science has achieved worldwide, capable of discovering various types of vaccine in an incredibly short period of time. The formidable scientific momentum has been sparked by the political conviction that any investment to remedy a global calamity of such proportions was worthwhile. In other words, scientific advances responded to an urgent political need. The important thing now is how to take advantage of that experience and how to keep the momentum going.

What happened during the pandemic resembles, in a certain way, the formidable scientific effort that was made in the United States during World War II through the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which reported directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the that virtually unlimited funds and resources were provided. On November 17, 1944, already convinced that he had won the war, Roosevelt wrote to the director of this young body, an engineer named Vannevar Bush: “The office that you direct represents a unique experiment in teamwork and cooperation in scientific research and in the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of the fundamental technical problems in war ”. He continued: “There is no reason why the lessons this experiment provides cannot be used profitably in peacetime. The information, techniques, and research expertise developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in universities and in private industry should be used in the days of peace to come to improve national health, creating new companies that bring new jobs and the improvement of the national standard of living ”. The president, who would pass away six months later, asked the expert for advice: What should we do? Bush sent him a report that became famous, entitled Science, a limitless frontier.

The most interesting thing about Bush’s work is its wonderful simplicity: “First: we must have many men and women trained in science, because the creation of new knowledge and its application for practical purposes depend on them. Next, we must strengthen basic research centers, mainly universities and research institutes. These institutions provide the most conducive environment for the creation of new knowledge and the least pressure for immediate and tangible results. It is universities and research institutes that dedicate most of their efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge ”.

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If the first thing is to get many men and women to dedicate themselves to science (Bush made explicit the importance of recognizing and promoting the work of women scientists), then the first push must be given in education. “There are talented individuals in every segment of the population, but with few exceptions, those who do not have the means to buy a higher education are left without it. Here is a tremendous waste of a nation’s greatest resource: the intelligence of its citizens. ” To tap into that talent, the key is to improve instruction in high school and broaden the pool of qualified men and women who successfully complete those studies. Bush, the scientist and engineer (and Roosevelt), would have been horrified by the cost of higher education in the United States, but also by the levels of school drop-outs that exist today, 76 years later, in the Spanish educational system. What a waste of talent!

That is why a greater emphasis on educational reform is missed in the Recovery and Resilience Plan prepared by the Government. It is true that education figures in one of the four axes on which the project is built, remarkable, on the other hand, in many aspects. But even so, the chapter or “lever” 7, which is entitled “Education and knowledge, continuous training and capacity building”, speaks much more about technological or digital training than about scientific training, and the two things are not synonymous. Not least for Vannevar Bush and his limitless border.

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