Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Science for sale: where we are and how we got here
By Ken Weiss
For a discussion of the origins of our era of entrepreneurial science, in the context of the industrial revolution, listen to the first of a 2-part series of the wonderful BBC Radio program In Our Time. The second part will be aired the last week of December. In Our Time, every Thursday except in summer, is a pleasure and educational wonder of our intellectually threadbare media time--listening regularly is like getting a college degree, without having to pay any tuition! The discussion is usually calm and congenial, but the first installment on the Industrial Revolution in Britain got pretty steamed up....and not just about the role of the steam engine, or the inventors of the steam engine, but about contesting views of the nature of, and proper course of, society that we still see today in society, and in science as well. The discussion is well worth listening to.
The industrial revolution, which mainly occurred in Britain, grew out of the Enlightenment period, of the overthrow of medieval and Classical concepts of a static universe that could be understood by thought and deductive reasoning. Led by the giants Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and many others famous and otherwise, this period ushered in an era of empiricism, an era in which we still live. The Enlightenment, a largely Continental view that the new kinds of knowledge--that has morphed into institutionalized 'science'--could enable society's problems of suffering and inequity to be relieved through a better, more systematic understanding of the real, rather than ideal world.
Francis Bacon is credited with introducing the scientific method's reliance on induction--repeated, controlled observation. In an In Our Time installment in 2009, Bacon's reasoning was discussed: he felt that science could be put into the service of the nation, to exploit the colonies and gain international political and economic dominance. We're living that legacy still, as many scientists argue -- believe -- that knowledge can only be called 'science' if it can lead us to manipulate the world.
Part of the debate is one that threads through the 19th century and exists still today: did major advances come because of the stream of culture, or because of the genius of A Few Good Men? Associated with that is the contrast between the view that cultural, including scientific advances belong to and are enabled by society, vis-à-vis the view that individual self-interest is the source and should receive the rewards of technological advance. The industrial revolution led to great progress in many different areas of life, but also to great misery in many different lives. In turn, that spawned the contest between capitalistic and socialistic thinking. In its stream were Marx's view of history as a struggle between material interests, Darwin's of history as a struggle between individuals, and many more.
In the US, figures like Bell and Edison led the way in commercializing, and publicly hyping science, and in setting up research laboratories aimed at industrial commercialization of ideas. In our age, the comparable questions include whether genetic research should be publicly funded, and if so, should resulting royalties as well as new products go back to the public? Should genes be patentable? Who owns human embryos? If the technicians, students, or other workers make the biotech inventor's work possible, why are they paid so little relative to him or her? Should research funds be put into areas that will yield commercial products at some vague future time, or should the funds--that come from taxes--be used to improve nutrition and vaccination of people here and now? Should NSF and NIH be pressured to see that a criterion for the science they fund be that it can be quickly commercialized?
To what extent should science be for sale? How much is owed to scientific discoverers? Indeed, how much credit should discoverers actually be given individually, rather than being viewed in corks floating on the ideas of their time? Should science be supported on the basis of its commercial potential?
The product of specific inventors, or the specific products of the times?
The industrial revolution involved many inventors, who improved technologies including looms, shipping, iron, steam, rail, and other aspects of the mechanization and industrialization of life. Step by step, innovators invented, tinkered with, and learned how to apply all sorts of new or improved techniques, machinery, and manufacturing technologies. The explosive growth of machinery-based industry that resulted transformed rural populations to urban proletarians, who depended for their survival on the products of industry rather than their own plots of land. Government made Britain's industrial advance possible through tax policy, the Royal Navy, the captive market of the Empire, import restrictions, banking laws, and in other ways. These policies nurtured, stimulated, and enabled the individual incentives of countless major and minor tinkering inventors (the equivalent of today's biotechnology innovators) to make their ideas and market them intellectually and commercially to make their livings (and to dream of riches). But how much credit actually belongs to the inventors and how much is owed to the workers who implemented inventions?
The debate over whether history is a cultural stream or whether it's transformed periodically by Great Men is a serious debate. For most ideas credited to The Great Genius, others can be found who at the same time or earlier had similar ideas for similarly good reasons. Darwin had his Wells, Wallace, Mathews, Adams, Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and others. Newton his Leibniz. Einstein his Poincaré. If you're in science and have an original idea, you can be sure that if you hunt around in the literature, you'll find others expressing the same insight. It's a humbling experience many of us have had. Without Watson and Crick, when would the structure of DNA have been discovered--eventually, never, or right away by Linus Pauling or Rosalind Franklin?
The cultural stream vs Great Man theories of history have been interesting questions in anthropology for a long time. It's about how culture works as a phenomenon, and among other things how science works as a way of knowing the world, and about how moral decisions are made about social equity. Maybe it's something appropriate to think about at this holiday time of year.
And if you want to know more, and didn't get a good book for Christmas, nestle down by a nice warm fire, with a brandy, and open a little story called War and Peace. It asks how important Napoleon was to Napoleonic history.