Die Zeit July 11, 2002, page 28
Interview with Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake wants the public to share in decisions about allocation of research funds

Die Zeit:  Many surveys show that science is losing its trust with the public, be it food safety or the vaccination against measles and mumps in England. What is your suggestion on how to close this gap in confidence?

Rupert Sheldrake:   Mainstream science sees this as an image crisis that can be overcome by a better public understanding of science. But this crisis runs deeper. Citizens are alienated from scientific institutions that should actually serve them and who are paid by them.

Die Zeit:  Where does this alienation originate?

Sheldrake:  Science has developed into a bureaucratic, rigid system. Receiving research funds, publishing papers, being promoted and getting prestige - all this depends on the peer reviews of anonymous committees. This reinforces current opinions ...

Die Zeit:  ... but at the same time it serves to reject low-quality research and undesirable trends.

Sheldrake:  The established system may prevent stupid research but it also slows down originality and innovation, promotes timidness and conformity. Innovation, however, is absolutely necessary in science.

Die Zeit:  Was it any different in the past?

Sheldrake:  At least in the USA and in England science was less institutionalised in the 19th century. A scientist like Darwin, who held no academic position and received no public funds, would probably not have been able to do his research on evolution under today‘s circumstances. Important breakthroughs back then were mostly produced by researchers who were neither professional scientists nor part of a bureaucratic system.

Die Zeit:  Does only research suffer from this?

Sheldrake:  No, we all pay a high price for it. Research uses up large amounts of money but often serves neither the public interest nor does it produce innovation. For example 50 per cent of all the scientific papers are not read by anyone except the authors themselves.

Die Zeit:  How do new insights get lost this way?

Sheldrake:  This can be seen very clearly in the field of alternative medicine. What is supported are mainly conventional projects, like the genome project or molecular diagnosis. I do not mean to say that this is worthless. But in this way only a fraction of the medical problems is dealt with. At the same time millions of people seem to benefit from acupuncture, herbs and other therapies. These low-cost forms of therapy, however, are largely ignored by the official bodies because they do not fit the dominating paradigm of mechanistic biology.

Die Zeit:  How might things be done differently?

Sheldrake:  In the USA senators and congressmen have succeeded in establishing a Center for Alternative Medicine with an initial annual budget of one million dollars, against the fierce resistance of the scientific establishment that spoke of squandering and quackery. But the research results were so promising that the budget has now been increased to 100 million dollars. Even that is still minimal compared to the many billions spent on conventional research.

Die Zeit:  So you are asking for a more democratic decision-making?

Sheldrake:  Research should reflect the interests of the citizen and taxpayer. At the present the main part of the funds is distributed by the scientific establishment as it sees fit, controlled by politicians. But politicians trust their advisers, and these are from the establishment again. A little democratisation might serve as a corrective here.

Die Zeit:  And how would that work out in detail?

Sheldrake:  My suggestion is to use one per cent of all research funding on projects that public interest decides about. 99 per cent would be distributed as before, by means of small committees which I call the College of Cardinals. I do not suppose that the official bodies will give up their control of research budgets, which is only human and understandable.

Die Zeit:  What is your defintion of „public interest“?

Sheldrake:  It might be best to use techniques of opinion research, like polls or focus groups, to find out what people want.

Die Zeit:  Maybe they don‘t know what they want.

Sheldrake:  Most of them do have clear ideas. Alternative research in the USA only received more grants because there was a keen public interest, which politicians took up. Surveys also show that there is an urgent desire for more and independent research on food safety.

Die Zeit:  How about decision by lots?

Sheldrake:  No problem. It would be worth an empirical test. 80 per cent of the "alternative“ budget might be allocated democratically and the remaining 20 per cent might be subjected to the chance of dice. After five years the results might be assessed by an independent body. This would show whether chance or democracy lead to better results.

Die Zeit:  Which body would you want to make the decisons about research applications?

Sheldrake:  One possibility would be committees, another one would be representatives of NGOs. Some kind of democratic National Council for Science might be established, or some society, like the Royal Geographical Society, might get the mandate.

Die Zeit:  Who is to apply?

Sheldrake:  Certainly also amateur scientists. Our societies are much more educated and better trained than at Darwin‘s time.The internet allows access to information which in former days was accessible only to people with large libraries. There are ideal conditions for liberating scientific research from bureaucratic institutions.

Die Zeit:  People might accuse you of making this proposal just to serve your personal interests, like the studies of parapsychological phenomena, that are not funded publicly.

Sheldrake:  I do not get any public funds for my research, nor am I striving for any. I am fortunate enough to receive grants from private foundations.

Die Zeit:  Are there also mainstream scientists who are warming to your ideas?

Sheldrake:  Many colleagues are conscious of the pressure that the present system produces. Part of it goes back to the negative influence of the Citations Index. The allocation of research grants does not depend on the quality of the work but on how often it is quoted. This supports today‘s majority views and leads to an unhealthy narrowing. If someone works in a new field it is only natural that he is not quoted frequently, since there are few people who know the field of study well enough. Even representatives of the establishment are well aware of this danger, and many of my colleagues encourage me in private.

Die Zeit:   If the success of publicly supported projects had to be judged by their practical usefulness, your research on unusual abilities of dogs would not pass the test.

Sheldrake:  Materialistic criteria should not be the measure of all things. Public interest should also be a criterion. Many people are fascinated by research on animal behaviour, as the ratings of films about nature show all over the world. But funds are almost only available for the study of the genome of songbirds, not the study of their behaviour.

Die Zeit:  You have been working outside the institutions for 20 years. Why this concern about science now?

Sheldrake:  Because the crisis has become more fundamental. My suggestions might help to bring life into rigid conditions without turning them upside down. Interests and institutions would remain intact but there is a chance to open new fields to research.

Die Zeit:  How do you want to start the process?

Sheldrake:  First of all a wide debate is needed. Maybe others have better ideas.

Die Zeit:  Is there a lack of public debate in the field of science?

Sheldrake:   Very clearly so! Right now there is no forum for it. Anyone who has differing opinions has a hard time. Disputations in the middle ages always held a role for the advocatus diaboli. Thomas Aquinas, one of the great scholars, wrote works in the style of debates in which the arguments of both sides were developed. We can learn a lot from these classical formats. What we have instead is an infinite number of scientific papers carrying the stamp of being officially accepted.

Interview by Jürgen Krönig.

Translated by Helmut Lasarcyk