Science is not for me

Ranga Yogeshwar: And what's in it for me?

I went on a date and met Linda, a very attractive young woman. That was in Boston in 1988. Linda had just become the "vice-president" of a bank, and we got into politics at dinner. The presidential election was coming up and Linda was an active supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who ran against George Bush. Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, was a shooting star and promised a turnaround after Ronald Reagan's two terms in office. “We have a wonderful election slogan,” she said: “What's in for me? (What's in it for me?), With that we will reach the people! ”She was euphoric.

A heated discussion broke out between us. Did the glue for cohesion in our society only exist in terms of utility for the individual? Wasn't this “what's in for me?” An expression of a misunderstanding of higher goals? Didn't JF Kennedy say the exact opposite with his famous sentence: "Don't ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?" Linda's slogan too far. How could I love a woman who took this sentence with such conviction. Perhaps love itself was nothing more than a business model for her. That evening I got into the taxi disappointed - alone. My date was off and "What's in for me?" Was the turn off.

Why am I telling you the story? The motto of the discussion event »Beautiful, expensive and useless? Science and its (added) value for society «reminded me of the slogan from back then. The text of the announcement said: “The citizens“ afford ”a strong science. But do they get what they expect? ”The talk was about benefits for society, treatments against cancer, renewable energy and of course climate change. Well, that always fits, and at least here in this country there is widespread approval of the fight against cancer and climate change - still. The text in the flyer was revealing, however, because at its core it relies on purely economic legitimation, operates with the utility value: Our medical care, our mobility, global communication, a flourishing economy - all this and much more would be inconceivable without scientific knowledge. This is "What's in for me?"

However, anyone who reduces scientific curiosity and the deep urge to understand this world better to economic categories is making a mistake. Because not everything that is researched fits into this way of thinking. For example, what “brings us” to a “Collaborative Research Center 933” that develops new interpretive approaches to ancient and medieval texts? He is funded with 11.5 million euros. The DFG is also funding a project around the birthplace of the ancient Egyptian temple of Edfu, where the hieroglyphs of the sanctuary, the sacrificial room and large parts of the vestibule are translated with our tax money. What, please, is the utility of this research?

The translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs is unlikely to increase the gross national product and ensure a flourishing economy. But isn't this science still great? It tries to solve the puzzle of a former high culture and expands our understanding of the past. There is also no economic return on investment when researching the properties of the Higgs boson or detecting gravitational waves, and even the economic spin-off in these disciplines is, if you look closely, not a good argument. For decades I have been observing a scientific landscape that tries to legitimize its inner driving force, namely curiosity and gain in knowledge, with utilitarian arguments. Why?

Over time, our society has taken on a grocery store, and no matter where you look, it's "What's in for me?" Media landscapes are based on the dictates of audience quotas, medicine is broken down according to economic criteria, and even operas have to present themselves as profit centers for city marketing: With a »Traviata« performance, the number of overnight stays, restaurant visits and the purchase rate in shoe stores increases - if that is no reason!