The trap of planning science opinion

Science shone in 2020. The history of the rapid development of vaccines to prevent the Covid-19 virus gives us an opportunity to reflect. In short, we can say that the success of vaccines is not explained by miracles or planning science. The history of the vaccine does not have an agenda in which the issues and institutions to be funded are pre-defined.

Rather, it has (initially) a long-term investment in science and the mobilization of researchers and scientific knowledge, which turns a problem into a way to apply knowledge (in a second moment). It has a public science policy, a public innovation policy, and an economic public policy that are implemented in an articulate but independent manner.

In Portugal, until 1995, science faced difficulties with sustainable development as it was subordinate to the logic of economy, planning and centralized prioritization. The period of autonomy of public science policy and its accelerated development began in 1995 as a result of the action of Mariano Gago, who concretized the principles formulated five years earlier with the publication of the “Manifesto for Science in Portugal”. It was his great merit to say: For business, what is business, for science, what is science. And to convince António Guterres that in order to develop the scientific system in Portugal it was necessary to define a public policy with financial instruments and own institutions that serve this purpose. A stable framework for funding institutions, governance and programs on a competitive, regular and predictable, transparent and readable basis was then created.

This clarity has been lost since 2011. There is a fog, a curtain of opacity over the circuitry, institutions, funding instruments and evaluation processes that hinders the readability of the entire system, which is now more bureaucratic, convoluted and full of improbable shortcuts. Paradigmatic of this situation is that in Portugal 2020 there will no longer be a science program that divides the responsibility for the evaluation and funding of science through the economy, territory and planning programs. This regression was based on a non-explicit orientation: the country can no longer invest in science, which does not mean an improvement in the economy.

As of 2015, almost nothing was reversed. And now, with the design of Portugal 2030 and the restoration and resilience program already known, it is clear that everything could get worse. Despite the maintenance of a Ministry of Science and Higher Education, science policy is itself limited to promoting scientific employment and training. Most of the support for internationalization, the financing of research projects and activities and the financing of scientific and technological infrastructures is subordinate to economic policy and planning logic, the requirements of application and benefit, and the illusion that an application is possible without knowledge it is produced first.

To say that there is enough knowledge and that it is now only necessary to apply it to business or the development of technologies is a mistake. Better: It’s a way to transfer financial resources to some companies. We cannot call this transfer policy science

Analyzing the programmatic guidelines for the Structural Funds, it becomes clear that they were chosen to align scientific resources with economic objectives. Or, in an equivalent formulation, that investments in science must depend on their immediate economic benefit. Such subordination will kill science and will not guarantee modernization of the economy.

To say that there is enough knowledge and that it is now only necessary to apply it to business or the development of technologies is a mistake. Better: It’s a way to transfer financial resources to some companies. We cannot call this transference the politics of science.

In conclusion, I would like to say the following. What is wrong or inadequate in our economy is not the result of scientific policies or the way scientific activities are developed in Portugal. On the other hand. The more modernized branches of the economy owe this in large part to the articulation that they have managed to establish with research centers, universities and technical colleges. So the real question is: what should or can we do, what public actions should we take to make the knowledge and science that scientists produce in Portugal more applicable? What should we add to investment in science to discover the application of scientific knowledge and improve its acquisition by economic actors? What are other countries doing? What good examples are there in Portugal that can inspire us?

The author writes under the new spelling agreement