Generalised short-sightedness

Michel Claessens
Michel ClaessensEditor in chef

The recent financial crisis leaves a particularly bitter taste in the mouth. Its vast scale confirms, both literally and figuratively, the bankruptcy of a system. But why did the calls for caution from numerous economists, including 2008 Nobel prizewinner Paul Krugman, go unheeded? Should we blame the economic models, unable to reflect systemic risk in a society of instantaneous, global information, or the experts, who have a hard time getting their voices heard, in particular by political and business leaders? One is tempted to draw a parallel with global warming, where we are again faced with what seems like a gigantic gulf between decision-making and expertise.

Under pressure from collapsing stock markets, leaders have called for greater global coordination. Here too the parallel with science is tempting. For years now, the European Union has been working hard - and successfully - to improve research coordination in Europe. The European Research Area is regarded as a model in Asia. The fact remains that beyond words or ad hoc reactions supranational organisations need to be given proper and sufficiently comprehensive mandates and remits.

The financial crisis has shaken us by the sheer weight of resources brought to bear upon it. Europeans have unblocked over a thousand billion euros in just a few days while, for years, the EU has been urging Member States to invest more in research to avoid a situation of permanent ‘under-development'. Where is the difference?

The financial crisis affects us today; the crisis in research tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Were he still alive, Einstein might well write: "I don't know what will be the major European invention of the 21st century, but I know what it was in the previous century: the stone axe." Crises are also opportunities for Europe to take a quantum leap forward.