Attending several events at Australia’s National Science Week recently, I heard a couple of times about scientists’ desire to be left to pursue their work without external pressures of various sorts. One speaker talked of the importance of “protected space”, which I take to refer to having the time, space and resources to pursue scientific investigation free of immediate demands like teaching, administration and money-making (though he himself never made explicit what he meant by the term). Another scientist, in response to a question about the perception that scientists demand that their research lead to something, lamented that this practice was driven to a large extent by modern science funding being predicated on getting results that governments can sell to the electorate.
I doubt that scientists are the only people who would like some protected space—artists would like time to produce art; artisans would like time to pursue their craft; and almost everyone would like time for friends and family. One might even argue that science has its exalted position in modern society precisely because scientific endeavour has led to so many things with broader appeal than simply indulging scientists’ curiosity.
Of course it isn’t reasonable to expect infinite time, space and resources to indulge such passions, however noble scientific or artistic endeavour might be. The question is how much of each we can afford to put into pursuing art and science and the rest, where it should come from, and how it should be distributed.
In taking part-time work, I certainly hoped to have some protected space of my own. In having some savings I also have some modest resources with which to make something of my protected space. I have created some protected spaces by setting aside certain times for writing, for completing projects around the house, for travelling and for relaxing with a drink, though these seem to have been much disrupted recently by going to events like Science Week. And I’ve put some small resources into home improvements and A Little Research. So far I’d like to think that this has worked out fairly well.
As society has become wealthier, one might suppose that it should be able to afford to set aside (or “free up” ) a correspondingly larger amount of protected space to be devoted to something other than becoming wealthier still. Perhaps Western societies have done this to the extent that their citizens now enjoy public education, public healthcare, clean environments, and, indeed, public science programmes. On the other hand individual citizens don’t always feel like it when they complain about the cost of living, or about fielding phone calls and e-mail after working hours.
Writing this now, and doing back to the scientists’ words that inspired this entry, I wonder if we need to more explicit about what we want protected and how we are going to pay for it, lest what we want protected be forever asked how it is paying for itself. Perhaps we want to pursue science or art simply because they are interesting; but if we do we need to set aside a certain amount of time and resources from elsewhere.