“Science needs time to think.
Science needs time
to read and time to fail.”
there is a growing school of thought emerging out of Europe that
urges university-based scientists to take careful stock of their lives – and to
try to slow things down in their work.
According to the proponents of the budding “slow science” movement,
the increasingly frenetic pace of academic life is threatening the quality of
the science that researchers produce. As harried scientists struggle to churn
out enough papers to impress funding agencies, and as they spend more
and more of their time filling out forms and chasing after increasingly
elusive grant money, they aren’t spending nearly enough time mulling
over the big scientific questions that remain to be solved in their fields.
This slow science movement is patterned, to some extent, on the Slow
Food movement, born in Italy in the 1980s. While slow food advocates try
to steer us away from the empty pleasures of Big Macs and Doritos and
towards the more nourishing embrace of homemade stews simmered for
hours from local ingredients, slow science proponents regard many of the
scientific papers being published today as the academic equivalent of fast
food – they’re produced in a rush and they’re not particularly edifying.
Among those who have sounded the alarm is University of Nice anthropologist Joël Candau. “Fast science, like fast food, favours quantity
over quality,” he wrote in an appeal he sent off to several colleagues in
2010. “Because the appraisers and other experts are always in a hurry too,
our CVs are often solely evaluated by their length: how many publications, how many presentations, how many projects?” When Dr. Candau’s
commentary was circulated online last year, more than 4,000 scientists
signed it in support.
More recently, a group of German academics calling themselves the
Slow Science Academy published their own attention-grabbing manifesto online. “Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read and time
to fail,” the manifesto declared.
This past August, Jean-François Lutz, a research director at the Institut
Charles Sadron in Strasbourg, published a commentary in the pages of
Nature Chemistry in support of slow science. Pointing to Charles Goodyear’s
introduction of vulcanized rubber in 1844, Dr. Lutz noted that this dis-
covery came about only after Goodyear had spent more than a decade on
the project, pursuing several false starts. He doubted that contemporary
scientists could devote so much time to a single goal. “In fact,” wrote
Dr. Lutz, “it seems more and more obvious that 21st-century scientists do
not have anything close to the amount of free time that would be neces-
sary to read all of the literature in their field of research, even in very
According to Thomas Schlich, McGill University’s Canada Research
Chair in History of Medicine, slow science represents something of a
backlash against recent changes to the way in which academic research is
funded in Europe. Dr. Schlich, who grew up in Germany and spent the
early part of his academic career there, says that European governments
and granting agencies are embracing the North American model for
funding researchers. The result, says Dr. Schlich, is increased competition
for grants that cover shorter periods of time. Scientists in Europe are also
facing more pressure to justify their work, but, as Dr. Candau pointed out,
the way in which they are evaluated leaves much to be desired.
According to Dr. Schlich, these changes to research funding and
evaluation have been particularly grating for German scientists, who
have historically pursued their work with a large measure of autonomy.
“This [autonomy] was seen as a recipe for success for German science.”
For instance, he says, Germany was at the forefront of physiological discov-
eries in the late 19th century, a period when “experimental physiologists
were given labs and lots of money and scientists felt free to pursue
whatever they wanted.”
That certainly isn’t the research environment that European scientists –
particularly young scientists – find themselves in today, says Ruth Müller,
a postdoctoral research fellow at the Austrian Institute for International
Affairs, where she heads the Science and Technology Policy Group. She
helped organize an international workshop devoted to slow science in 2010.
Her interest in slow science stems in part from the research she did