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The City of Science, Science in the City

p. 45

Notes de la rédaction

Excerpts from Prof. Alain Prochiantz’s paper

Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

Texte intégral

1What is the purpose of science? There are generally two answers to this question: first, science is said to produce new knowledge, and second, to serve society.

2Hence, it is thought that the production of new knowledge must serve society, thus linking research and development. Yet, this is a very vague answer, which overlooks the problems that development can pose to fundamental research and the time that these interactions can take from beginning to end (for it then precedes fundamental research rather than the other way around). The issue of time is obviously crucial, as the time of knowledge and the unexpected course it can often take only rarely match the sense of urgency and the impatience that ensue from it (a course which surprises inventors themselves, and which is expressed in the famous “how did I find this?”).

3Setting aside for the moment the issue of industrial competitive­ness to look at agriculture or medicine, we find that the urgency of feeding or of healing is always present, and always recognized. Those of a certain age will have heard of Ivan Michurin and Trofim Lysenko who, in the name of science for the people, destroyed Soviet genetics, which at the time was a world leader, and who criticized bourgeois geneticists because they apparently had nothing better to do than “count flies’ hairs” (sic). Nikolai Vavilov, a renowned agronomist and geneticist, and member of the Supreme Soviet from 1931 to 1940, was arrested in 1940 for defending genetics – the bourgeois science that it was said to be. He died in prison in 1943. Such madness, which had disastrous repercussions on agriculture in addition to its impact on science, can obviously only occur in a totalitarian regime. It should nevertheless alert us to be wary of decision makers enjoining scientists to respond to social urgency. Long ago, surely longer than you can remember, I spoke of “rampant Lysenkism” regarding this constant incentive, through programmes addressing societal questions, to rally scholars around major causes, whether they be national (or European), industrial or humanitarian.

4Numerous counter examples illustrate the fact that the most promising recent discoveries in medicine were made in a spirit of pure cognitive curiosity. Transposons and genome instabi­l­ity were discovered by Barbara McClintocks, who studied the variety of colours of the maize grains on a single ear; the RNA interference phenomenon was identified by Richard Jorgensen through experiments on the colour of petunia petals; neural stem cells in adults were discovered by Fernando Nottebohm who studied birdsong; and as we saw yesterday, iPS, which, with stem cells, lead to regenerative medicine and offer new medicine screening tools, and which are linked to a fundamental question in biology, raised by August Weismann in the nineteenth century.

5Which Alzheimer or Cancer Plan would have decided to fund a project on petunia petals? And I could also facetiously ask in turn about the number of funded projects on such plans that have yielded little or no results.

6Yet it is not the people who do not understand, the people who are easy to blame despite populism. Rather, it is the social and political elite that has largely divorced itself from science. Although not uniformly enacted across the world, this divorce, to which I will revert below, is unfortunately pronounced in France. To avoid any ambiguity, I would like to point out here that I am eminently in favour of the development of “translational” science. I have no issue whatsoever with the term “applied”, provided that it does not commit us to choosing between the one or the other – the cognitive or the applied – but rather includes them both, with the possi­bility of switching from the one to the other if need be, or simply because we feel like it.

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Alain PROCHIANTZ, « The City of Science, Science in the City », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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