The Independence Day of any nation is a chance not only to celebrate, but to consider what the independence was for. And if there could be stated any common thing that unites all independence days in all nations, surely it is that within that day there was seen a chance for renewal, for a restatement of purpose, and to envisage new futures.

From a faraway city like Edinburgh, it would be impolitic to lecture any nation celebrating its independence on what they should make of such a day, but I don’t think it would be hubris to make some observations on what independence days in all nations can offer all of us. So, if you will indulge me, let me make some suggestions.

There is a tendency in any age and state of human development to assume that we have reached some sort of apotheosis, that we have garnered the full potential of the modern world and realized the heights of what technology and institutional organization can do. Although we see imperfection, if we cannot imagine anything new, we suppose that we have reached a plateau from which only incremental advances are possible or desirable.

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However, a cursory glance at history will make anyone balk at such assertions. The ancient Greeks could not have dreamt that the tiny direct democracy of which they were so proud, and for which they were willing to die, would one day give rise to the complex representative democracies of the modern age. The astronomers of the ancient Islamic world would not have dreamt that giant telescopes would one day float silently in space, observing the atmospheres of distant planets and searching for Earth-like worlds.

Ukraine Can’t Wait Another 75 Years to Join NATO, Says Chief Diplomat
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Ukraine Can’t Wait Another 75 Years to Join NATO, Says Chief Diplomat

Kyiv’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told CNN in an interview with renowned journalist Christiane Amanpour that “we cannot wait another 75 years to celebrate Ukraine’s accession.”

With this modicum of wisdom at hand, we could propose that one use of independence days is to cast aside our assumptions of near perfection and use them to consider how to advance the human situation and build better things, construct new possibilities that might lead to eventual states of which we can now only be dimly aware.

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I am at a loss to suggest improvements in the worlds of art or politics, since I am neither an artist nor a politician, but I do know a small amount about science. I’d like to suggest some ideas in that domain in the spirit of what I have in mind for the use of independence days. Let’s consider the institutions that preside over scientific progress at a national level.

Since the formation of the earliest science academies, these institutions have operated with a rather exclusive, one might even say a clubbish, appeal. This isn’t surprising. At least in Europe, they were born in a period when exclusive guilds controlled much of the commercial world and monarchies flourished.

Many of our scientific organizations are the children of a time when elitism for elitism’s sake was regarded as a good in itself. Their essential character has passed, largely unquestioned, across the modern world. And so, we find ourselves in a time when the nature of such institutions has become largely uniform everywhere. My objective isn’t to criticize this situation as such, but rather to ask: is it possible to advance?

Physicist Richard Feynman had some thoughts about this status quo. He once said, in his characteristically irreverent and rakish way: “When I was in high school, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades… I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. Honors – from that day to this – always bothered me.

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“I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization.”

I have no intention of expressing an opinion about specific organizations (I have nothing against those he mentions), but in pursuing the conditions for open societies, it is worth considering observations on institutional cultures and how we might improve them. We might take Feynman’s views as a departure point.

Imagine science academies that were created or renewed to operate along a different line – open to anyone with some objective requisite level of knowledge, maybe a scientific university degree or some level of productivity. Instead of restricted, and therefore, by default, rather secretive cultures, they would instead resemble town squares, into which scientists would freely come and go.

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This openness would not undermine excellence. Just as a Kyiv chess club might include in its ranks highly accomplished chess players, but otherwise be open to all with an interest in such a game, so an open science academy can contain coteries of Nobel Prize winners or the similarly accomplished. Elites are, of course, no bad thing. But when a small cabal decides who is suitable to join a small cabal, ceaseless circularity is assured; and this is the basis of every despotism and dynasty that has ever flourished.

What would be the benefits of such an arrangement? The culture proposed could dissolve Feynman’s concerns by removing the ancient predilection for exclusivity; it would dispel the public perception that science is a closed priesthood (a misunderstanding about science and its methods which is entirely forgivable, given what Feynman observed); and, it would reflect the culture of science itself with greater fidelity (one of free, unrestricted, and open discourse). It might free science a little more from the capriciousness of human politics.

So, we can already envisage a future with scientific organizations that might lead us not to some unachievable utopia, but at least to a state of further progress in the institutional structure of a free state. These innovations do not need to be revolutionary in a disruptive, let alone violent, way. Conservative political thinker Edmund Burke, who so abhorred (for good reason) revolutionary change after what he saw in late 18th-century France, need not be disturbed. Nevertheless, institutions can make confident strides towards fresh shores.

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I’m not proposing that these scientific ideas are relevant to Ukraine, but I use them to illustrate how a spirit of independence provides an opportunity to cast aside historic assumptions and think anew.

In the case of Ukraine, as a nation that undertook a project of renewal 32 years ago as it moved out of the orbit of the Soviet socialist experiment, it still has two possibilities open to it. It can continue to renew its institutions, modifying and tweaking them to align to emerging alliances and prerogatives.

In some respects, this path is inescapable for any nation that wants to integrate into existing global alliances. For example, if Ukraine plans to join the EU, there are certain economic and political benchmarks that must be met to be admitted into that alliance.

However, a second path is the one I have drawn attention to, and that is for Ukraine to be emboldened to lay new paths, to use the spirit that was unleashed 32 years ago to forge institutional structures from politics to science which challenge all of us.

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On this Independence Day in Ukraine, is there a finer time to let the imagination roam and to fill our minds with the hope, excitement and promise of what we might become and achieve, anywhere in the world? Perhaps if we are busy for the rest of the year, this day might be a useful one to spend a few hours contemplating how to construct new organizations hitherto unconsidered as ways to improve the human condition.

If independence means anything, it means the independence to break free not only of past national shackles, but of all chains and ways of thinking that slow and delay a better future.

On independence days, make the casements clatter and the cobwebs come unfixed from their corners in our weary old buildings. This is not just Ukraine’s opportunity; it is the chance for humanity to seek advancement across all parts of society. Surely, this is one use of independence days.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

 Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

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