By Greg Fisher
Last week the European Commission chose not to invest in FuturICT, which was a massively ambitious project to integrate ICT and complexity science. The aim was, as their website puts it, “understand and manage complex, global, socially interactive systems” and in so doing to “create a paradigm shift”.
Driven mainly by ETH in Zurich and UCL in London, a stellar consortium of universities was created across the entire European Union, and had the active support of MIT in the US. Millions of Euros, provided by the EU, were spent in developing and promoting the concept. The culmination was a bid to be a so-called Flagship EU project, with access to €1 billion – €1 billion! – of funding over 10 years.
Yet the project has failed. A team of highly distinguished but anonymous reviewers, believed to include Nobel Laureates in the social sciences, gave the science of the project a mark below the threshold at which projects can be considered for funding.
What does this mean for complexity science? There is no doubt that it is a serious rebuff. But a key point to note is that it was not rejected at the policy making level. It didn’t get that far. It was turned down on scientific grounds.
There is a view that the project was top-heavy with people from a physics or maths background (all of whom are extremely clever people) who do not always understand that social systems are fundamentally different from physical ones. One MP I spoke to about FuturICT compared it to “The Empire Strikes Back”. I do not mean to kick the academics involved in the project while they are down (I know, like, and get on well with many of them) but I think that in the cold light of day this is a fair criticism.
Extending and reinvigorating the social sciences by complexity science, and in particular by the science of networks, will remain a major theme in the future. This can bring great insights. But the social part of ‘social science’ must never be lost sight of: complex social systems are a very different beast in comparison to natural complex systems.
I feel that Synthesis and organisations like it, are now even more important for the complex systems community, as we try to bridge the gap between the science and the real world policy makers.