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The dedicated followers of fashion of the academic world

The idea that scientists are immune from fashions and trends does not stand up to scrutiny. An international meeting in Bern is discussing how fashion can affect the world of research.

At the invitation of the Council of Swiss Scientific Academies, researchers from Switzerland and abroad are looking at the topic of “megatrends”.

The term is academic shorthand for the snowballing nature of a particular research breakthrough. Important new findings in any scientific discipline, from medicine through sociology to zoology, can lead researchers in other areas to change their views or consider new dimensions.

Margrit Leuthold, the secretary general of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences, told swissinfo that breakthroughs could lead to unexpected megatrends.

“The discovery of the restriction enzyme in the early 1970s is one example: it was a side-result of other research, and gave rise to the new field of molecular biology, one of the most important of current scientific fields,” she said.

“Environmental research is another area. It arose from social concerns about environmental deterioration.”

Such is the importance of megatrends that they can become the new orthodoxy, replacing previous thinking, which may itself have arisen from an earlier megatrend.

They also catch the attention of those outside the academic world. Public interest and faith in new developments can influence the research interests and beliefs of academics.

“Another result of megatrends is that funding agencies start putting their money into that particular area,” said Leuthold. “This might result in new discoveries which can themselves cause new megatrends.”

But academics are wary of following new ideas for their own sake. The pursuit of a megatrend may lead to the neglect of some areas within a discipline, making it lopsided.

Those actively engaged in research do not always agree on the nature of megatrends, or even their existence. The Bern symposium aims to identify how megatrends actually work, and what their importance is to both theory and practice.

The meeting also brings together academics, funders and policy-makers, in an attempt to identify future trends and develop a dialogue about each side’s attitude to megatrends.

by Jonathan Fowler

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