Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Slow Science may well be A Very Good Thing

A few weeks ago I spent a very enjoyable Saturday at the Northern Arts and Science Network annual conference Dialogues, in Leeds. The morning sessions including two outstanding keynote talks. The first from Julian Kiverstein on synthetic synaesthesia and the second from David James on technology enhanced sports. Significant food for thought in both talks. Then Jenny Tennant Jackson and I ran an afternoon workshop on the Artificial Culture project (aided and abetted by 8 e-puck robots) which generated lots of questions and interest.

But apart from singing the praises of NASN and the conference I want to reflect here on something that emerged from the panel discussion at the end of the conference. There was quite a bit of debate around the question of open research (in both science and the arts) and public engagement. In recent years I've become a strong advocate of a unified open science + public engagement approach. In other words doing research transparently - ideally using an open notebook approach so that the whole of the process as well as the experimental outcomes are open to all - combined with proactive public engagement in (hopefully) a virtuous circle*.

So there I was pontificating about the merits of this approach in the panel discussion at NASN when someone asked rather pointedly "but isn't that all going to slow down the process of advancing science?" Without thinking I retorted "Good! If the cost of openness is slowing down science then that has to be a price worth paying." The questioner was clearly somewhat taken aback and to you sir, if you should read this blog, I offer sincere apologies for the abruptness of my reply. In fact I owe you not only apologies but thanks, for that exchange has really got me thinking about Slow Science.

So, having reflected a little, here's why I think slowing down science might not be as crazy as it sounds.

First the ethical dimension. Science or engineering research that is worth doing, i.e. is important and has value, has - by definition - an ethical dimension. The ethical and societal impact of science and engineering research needs to be acknowledged and understood by researchers themselves then widely and transparently debated, and not left to bad science journalism, science denialism or corporate interests. This takes time.

Next, unintended consequences. High impact research always has implications, and the higher the  impact, the greater the potential for unintended consequences (no matter how well intentioned the work). Of course negative unintended consequences (scientific, economic, philosophical) almost always end up becoming a problem for society - so they too should be properly considered and discussed during a project's lifetime.

Finally the open science, public engagement dimension. I would argue that the time and effort costs of building open science and public engagement into research projects will reap manifold dividends in the long run. First take the open science aspect, openness - while it can take some courage to actually do - can surely only bring long term benefits in increased trust (in the work of the project, and in science in general). Second, running an integrated open science - public engage- ment approach alongside the research brings direct educational benefit to the next generation. And the additional real cost (in time and effort) has to be much less than it would be for an isolated project seeking the same educational outcomes.

Critics will of course argue that Slow Science would be uncompetitive. In a limited sense they would be right, but it seems to me important not to confuse commercialisation of spin out products with the much longer time span of research, nor to allow the tail of exploitation to wag the dog of research. Big science that takes decades can still spin out lots of wealth creating stuff along the way. Another criticism of Slow Science is to do with pressing problems that desperately need solutions. This is harder to counter but - perhaps - the unintended consequences argument might hold sway.

Slow Science: a Good Thing, or not?

*science communicator and PhD student Ann Grand is researching exactly this subject and has already published several papers on it.


  1. Again I agree with you Alan: slow science is also good thing.

    As a matter of fact some colleagues philosopher of science use that expression when they would like to raise issues: " I would like to slow down and draw your attention to....".

    During the last years, we have witnessed a dramatic change in the mode of scientific production. This change has been induced by evaluation methods of scientists, ranking of about everything in Science from Scientists to Universities passing by scientific journals. These management methods have been enforced by funding agencies and Universities themselves.

    No doubts this can benefit transfers of knowledge and techniques from the academic to the corporate world. This is of course the main reason for this evaluation frenzy. It has introduced a sense of urgency for productivity and stringent competition that impairs thinking and production of knowledge itself.

    Anything that tends to slow down this process is perceived as bad, starting with public concerns about new technologies that are hastily introduced without proper evaluations and long term perspectives. This public concerns is naturally extended to academic research as the boundaries are fading away.

    I went recently to a PhD defense in a leading European University (ranking again...). I arrived, and I had announced that before coming, in the morning and the defense was at the end of the afternoon. I was UNABLE to have ANY conversation with my colleagues during the day. they were all running doing, apparently, very urgent work. I started to wonder if I was still in a University or along a chain production plant like in the famous Chaplin's film The Modern Times. Tell that to Darwin whose books were published after a life-time work.

    We had a four years projects about chicken and robots interactions. While I was doing a presentation some colleagues asked me for publications. I told them that a few existed but that the main results are not published yet. Some of them were surprised and asked me if I had lost my head as I should have published at least one or two main publications per year. My answer to that astonished them: “We didn’t because we were thinking”. We were thinking about how to analyze and interpret the data and we have done it several times, changing our minds and methods. If we had published before It would have been a kind of first “draft analysis”. Besides what was the urgency? My ranking as a scientist? The ranking of the lab? The ranking of the University? What else?

    Of course our research has very little or no societal impact. But it is the same or even worse for research topics that do have important societal impacts. If they do have societal impact it is often because the results are going to become technological products that will be rapidly marketed. No wonder public concern about science and technology is rising. It is not necessarily because people don’t understand it is because they feel and they know that it is going way too fast without proper long term thinking.

    So Science has to be slow but not too slow. How to know it is not too slow? Well maybe we can take the time to think about it....

  2. Thank you José for your fullsome comment - very much appreciated.

    You are quite right to point out that university science is increasingly under tremendous pressure to deliver, so while in my article I was arguing for the benefits of slow science, you are here highlighting the dangers of 'fast' science - which as you say are real and pernicious.

    So it seems to me that we're both arguing not so much for slow science, but science at the pace that it happened perhaps 30 years ago - when PhD students, their supervisors and examiners did have time to fully engage and reflect, and when it was easy to say yes to invitations to talk to schools because (although we worked hard then) the time pressures were not crazy.

  3. I think you're right and I would suggest the rather obvious analogy that democracy is a pretty slow way of going about the business of government compared to the speed and efficiency which can be achieved by tyranny, but most of us consider the price worth paying. Some scientists seem to have the attitude that if we can do something then we should do it and anyone who raises doubts is 'living in the past' or anti-science.

  4. Thank you Joseph, yes that's a good analogy. I also strongly agree that science and scientists should not be morally neutral. Scientists are of course often optimists, sometimes given to hysterical optimism (think of Singularitarians). Optimism is good, but should be tempered by thoughtfulness and responsibility.

  5. Dear Alan,
    It is with heartfelt warmth that I read your brilliant posting about SLOW SCIENCE.

    (Briefly about me: I am from a Medical background, was luckily the finalist in some national modeling competitions in the early 90's, travelled for 3 years internationally as a male model before going back into education. I fortunately achieved with much hard work (dyslexic) A's at A level (96%) CHEM and getting a degree in Physiology before being published in numerous Journals of Physiology. I then felt frustrated creatively and am now doing an MA in Film Screenwriting split between the UK and Finland).

    THE REASON I find your post so spellbinding is that it is the first time in my whole life I have ever heard anyone mention about opening up research because this has been in my thoughts for many years now and I never knew anyone else had ever considered this concept.
    For six years now I have been trying consistently to make related concerns aware that by altering intellectual property law to facilitate a television programme with a beautiful base connected to labs around the world and also to the general public at large be it scientists, artists or even brilliant lateral thinking school children and brainstorm the world's bottlenecks and problems from cancer to aids, blindness to deafness and also in fascinating fields that you are involved with like Robotics and A.I. also Nanoscience and Anti-Aging research- then because it would have an impact on culture; giving the opportunity for people of the world to be involved in a morally virtuous way and hopefully in that they could be rewarded financially for a record of any positive contribution then it WOULD NOT SLOW SCIENCE DOWN BUT WOULD MORE LIKELY TURBO CHARGE RESEARCH SPEEDING UP SCIENTIFIC AND ARTISITIC DISCOVERY SO THAT GOOD PEOPLE IN THE WORLD MAY SEE DEVELOPMENTS AND BREAKTHROUGHS WITHIN THEIR OWN LIFETIME.

    I suppose that this would be a form of REALITY TELEVISION but not a total waste of time like watching fame hungry young girls flaunt themselves in bikinis to the obesession of the British Media.

    I like the way that you think and express yourself; also the things that you are involved in and that you seem to have good intentions for the fruit of research to benefit the world but to me it is TOO SLOW as it stands and by using your intentions combined with the power of television and people globally with a social conscience quite ironically given the tital of your post it could SPEED UP RESULTS and improve them both quantitativly and qualitatively which I hope I am not too presumtious in believing that these are your aims as a decent conscientious man.

    I am free to answer any questions and my e-mail address is

    I wondered if you might help me become involved in a related future conference where I could add my take to those of other like minded people and also people with a different outlook so I could hint at ideas of Philosophy, Sociology and Global Prioritazion of things that are truly in scoiety's interests E.G. Young children affected by leukaemia rather than this tiresome present day Celebrity Culture that I feel could ultimately seal society in a sort of metaphorical body bag. Perhaps you could help me to give a 5 minute talk about something I consider important and believe in.

    In any case I will say goodbye now and wish you and all the viewers of your Web Log a Wonderful Christmas and an inspiring 2012,
    Thanks again,
    James R Naz.

  6. Thanks you James for your very interesting and clearly heartfelt comments. While I agree that science needs to be transparent and I would dearly love to see open science happening on TV, I'm not sure I agree with you that it would speed up science.

    I'll email you to follow-up your comments.

    Best wishes