Dan Sarewitz has written a thought provoking piece for The New Atlantis, "Saving Science". He argues that science has received massively increased funding during the Cold War until today, but has lost its innovative role in solving problems for society. He sees the reason for this in science being left to itself, operating under a mandate that is not responsive to societal demands. Much research is fraudulent, not replicable, or irrelevant.
The article takes up a point we discussed in my last blog entry, about the hottest summer. The question is this: does science strive to find something we could call truth? Or do existing incentive structures hamper this effort? What function does science have in society? And what function should dit have? (The question if it is radically different from journalism is not addressed. This will be done in another post).
Here are a few quotes from Sarewitz:
Science has been important for technological development, of course. Scientists have discovered and probed phenomena that turned out to have enormously broad technological applications. But the miracles of modernity in the above list came not from “the free play of free intellects,” but from the leashing of scientific creativity to the technological needs of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
The story of how DOD mobilized science to help create our world exposes the lie for what it is and provides three difficult lessons that have to be learned if science is to evade the calamity it now faces.
First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.
Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.
Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences.
Science has been such a wildly successful endeavor over the past two hundred years in large part because technology blazed a path for it to follow. Not only have new technologies created new worlds, new phenomena, and new questions for science to explore, but technological performance has provided a continuous, unambiguous demonstration of the validity of the science being done. The electronics industry and semiconductor physics progressed hand-in-hand not because scientists, working “in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” kept lobbing new discoveries over the lab walls that then allowed transistor technology to advance, but because the quest to improve technological performance constantly raised new scientific questions and demanded advances in our understanding of the behavior of electrons in different types of materials.
This combination of predictable behavior and invariant fundamental attributes is what makes the physical sciences so valuable in contributing to technological advance — the electron, the photon, the chemical reaction, the crystalline structure, when confined to the controlled environment of the laboratory or the engineered design of a technology, behaves as it is supposed to behave pretty much all the time.
But many other branches of science study things that cannot be unambiguously characterized and that may not behave predictably even under controlled conditions — things like a cell or a brain, or a particular site in the brain, or a tumor, or a psychological condition. Or a species of bird. Or a toxic waste dump. Or a classroom. Or “the economy.” Or the earth’s climate. Such things may differ from one day to the next, from one place or one person to another. Their behavior cannot be described and predicted by the sorts of general laws that physicists and chemists call upon, since their characteristics are not invariable but rather depend on the context in which they are studied and the way they are defined.