Engaging with Galileo

How can we engage people outside of the worlds of research and policy with debates about research policy? One of the challenges in doing this is framing the debates in ways that are meaningful to the audience, and bringing them to places where they can engage. And one option for this is the theatre. The current production of Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company presents an opportunity to do this, but I think it is an opportunity missed.

I should probably state from the outset that my criticism isn’t addressed at the play as a piece of theatre. As is almost always the case with the RSC, the play is beautifully acted and wonderfully staged. I would definitely recommend going to see the production if you can.

The play is also packed with research policy content. There are scenes that deal with the autonomy of researchers, the balance between directed and non-directed funding, the place of commercial interests in the research process and the relationship between science and society. The problem is that these issues are dealt with in a one dimensional way, as clear black and white questions, with little appreciation of the inevitable shades of grey that the questions bring.

For example, there is a scene at the beginning where a university administrator challenges Galileo, who is avoiding both teaching and working on commercial projects in order to focus on his research. He points out that Galileo enjoys considerable autonomy to pursue his own ideas, and suggests that devoting some of his time to ‘the public good’ is a small price to pay. Clearly this is an encounter with much contemporary resonance, made more apparent by the fact that the play is performed in modern dress. The problem is that the university officer is portrayed as a bumbling bureaucrat, designed to gather no sympathy at all from the audience, despite the fact that the position that he adopts could be seen as a sensible compromise. Instead the audience is encouraged to accept uncritically Galileo’s rhetoric, that scientists should just be left alone (and financially supported) to do as they will.

This type of over-simplification happens through the play. I don’t know whether it is the text, the translation or the production that are mostly at fault, but either way it’s a shame. Lots of people who don’t usually think about these issues will see the play, and an opportunity for critical reflection on the complexity has been lost.