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Science’s Creativity Crisis

By Julie Heng, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julie Heng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Last month, in an open letter to his science adviser and nominee for a new cabinet-level science policy position, President Joe Biden asked Eric Lander, a systems biology professor at Harvard Medical School and director of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, to urgently consider the growing interplay between science and society.

This letter arrives as we are at a juncture in scientific history. Especially visibly during this pandemic, science and technology are far more intimately connected to our national security, information dissemination, and economy than ever before. In his letter, Biden poses several critical questions: How will our public health system learn from the pandemic? How will America ensure our global leadership in technology, address climate change, and guarantee that the rewards of science and tech are shared across the country?

Most importantly, however, Biden highlights the need to secure the “long-term health of science and technology in our nation.” If we need to transition entire campus infrastructures online, roll out vaccines at breakneck speed, and combat distrust of public health guidelines, if we want to address the questions posed above, then the underlying scientific and technological frameworks need to be secure.

Biden calling attention to science in this way is a welcome shift from the science denial we’ve been witnessing for the past four years. As John Holdren, former President Barack Obama’s science adviser and Harvard Kennedy School professor of Environmental Policy, affirms, steps are being taken to put us in the right direction.

“I think the Executive Orders issued by President Biden on climate change, jobs, equity, immigration, scientific integrity, and [the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] are further evidence of his determination to get the restoration of the role of science, technology, and facts in the Executive Branch off to a flying start,” Holdren wrote in an email to The Crimson.

But the question of scientific longevity is not as straightforward as you may think. Science research, constrained by intellectual and resource limitations, has strayed from the truth-seeking discipline it often claims to be.

"[T]here's a lot of inertia and a lot of difficulty funding the truly deep questions and identifying new areas of ignorance," according to Michael Levin, a biology professor and Vannevar Bush endowed chair at Tufts University, and associate faculty at Harvard's Wyss Institute.

“There's a lot of pressure to design projects in a way that's not going to upset existing paradigms and concepts, and that will be able to go through [the review process] without sounding too unfamiliar or different from the mainstream,” Levin said in an interview with The Crimson. “And I think that's a problem. I think we need to be rewarding creativity and divergent thinking.”

So what does rewarding creativity actually look like?

This column will examine factors that obscure truth-seeking in scientific research, such as funding mechanisms, irreproducibility, peer review, and barriers to science communication. We must confront how our current academic structures and institutions promote thinking inside the box instead of encouraging scientific daring.

But though science has become constricted by funding pressures, I find so many reasons to be hopeful that science’s public significance is being elevated. The last time a president wrote such a letter to his science advisor, America was emerging from a similar and very different crisis: World War II. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Class of 1904 wrote to his science adviser, MIT Vice President Vannevar Bush, for advice on how to expand on the science learned during the war, the government’s role in managing private and public research, and the future of scientific talent. Bush’s response, a report titled “Science: The Endless Frontier,” allowed the United States to emerge as a global leader in scientific innovation.

Still, as Bush insightfully pointed out nearly 80 years ago, it is important to remember that “much of new knowledge is certain to arouse opposition because of its tendency to challenge current beliefs or practice.” In his view, good science requires “solidarity and security, as well as a substantial degree of personal intellectual freedom.”

The best possible future is one where the long-term health of science is preserved, one where we continue exploring, examining critically, and improving lives. That kind of science requires fresh ideas rather than stagnant, repetitive solutions — ideas that require the intellectual freedom Bush advocated. Researchers must be able to try and fail and learn from it, to hypothesize and experiment correctly, honestly, and inventively.

“The only way to new knowledge is to bust your butt in the laboratory and or in some setting and ask nature questions and be honest about what the answers that you get are,” Levin said. Science, he says, is “a magical machine for generating new knowledge, and that is the only one we have.”

And since this magical machine is a work in progress reliant on public support, we must foster an emphasis on truth-seeking and out-of-the-box thinking. At its core, science is correct, honest, and inventive work. That’s why it’s so crucial that we think big and challenge paradigms along this endless frontier.

Julie Heng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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