Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research? | The Nation


Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

AP IMAGESTelstar communications satellite model at Bell Labs, 1962

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

Also by the Author

The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

The task of a critic has to do with the nature of the knowledge we call art.

The most striking thing about the way we talk about science these days is just how little we talk about it at all. No large fundamental question focuses our attention on the adventure of discovery; no grand public project stirs our reflection on the perils of technological control. Nothing for decades has approached the imaginative impact of relativity or the double helix, the moon landing or the bomb. Even genetic research, which generates so much attention in the media, is understood more as a medical issue--news you can use--than an issue of science as such. And if we talk about science very little, we talk about the scientist even less. The old stereotypes, once so evocative--the genius, the benefactor, the madman--have lost their potency. No Einstein or Pasteur anymore, no Frankenstein or Strangelove. Scientific research has become so highly collaborative, so much a group endeavor, that the investigators have been eclipsed by the explainers--the Sagans and Pinkers and Gladwells. Science has become so pervasive a part of the way things run that, like the servants in a Victorian household, the people who actually make it happen have disappeared into the wallpaper.

Steven Shapin's new book makes those people visible again, gives them a history and clears away the preconceptions with which the larger culture has surrounded them. Shapin's earlier studies--Leviathan and the Air-Pump, A Social History of Truth and The Scientific Revolution--concentrated on the early years of modern science, the age of Galileo and Newton. Now he turns his attention to the past two centuries, bringing his story all the way to the present--or even, since scientists are understood to be the people, as he says, who create the future, a little further. Combining historical scholarship with sociological research, Shapin reveals the often sharp discrepancies between cultural assumptions about the scientific life and the attitudes of scientists themselves. Ideals such as creativity, integrity and autonomy are put to the test of actual experience. But though the book's historical sections are consistently interesting, it seems to this lay reader that Shapin's approach to contemporary institutional structures avoids most of the important questions about the ways scientists go about their business today and the effect these arrangements have on the kind of science--and therefore the kind of future--that we end up getting.

Shapin's narrative begins with the shift from science as calling to science as job. The figures of the Scientific Revolution--men like Newton and Boyle--were seen as rare spirits working in austere solitude to unlock the secrets of God's creation. With little institutional support or financial reward, these natural philosophers, as they were called, devoted themselves to the discovery of divine Truth with a monastic disregard for material advantage. But two broad developments brought an end to this ideal. The Industrial Revolution gave science an instrumental purpose, and the secularization of consciousness deprived the natural world of its sacred aura. Science became caught up in the business of producing profit and enhancing state power, purposes mundane rather than transcendental. And scientific inquiry, whatever ends it might be put to, could no longer be seen as a form of metaphysical discovery. The one ultimate Truth became many empirical truths. Though the notion of the scientist as a kind of oracle of nature lingered on until well into the next century--Einstein, revered as both genius and sage, is exemplary--the idea of science as a higher calling had lost its philosophical underpinnings. What had been a vocation was on its way to becoming a mere occupation.

Through the early decades of the twentieth century, the old notions came under still greater pressure. The allegiance to knowledge for the sake of knowledge and consequent elevation of "pure" over applied research, the principled disdain for self-enrichment and corollary belief in the scientist's moral superiority, the commitment to investigative autonomy and free exploration as essential to the scientific project--all these were challenged by the explosive growth of industrial science. Westinghouse, Kodak and many other American corporations, seeking to emulate the success of German firms like Bayer, Siemens and I.G. Farben, established sophisticated and highly organized research centers. By 1940, as many as 3,500 industrial laboratories were in operation. Between 1920 and 1952, the share of national income devoted to corporate research multiplied more than twenty-fold. By 1958, Bell Labs alone employed more than 3,000 scientists. Such numbers swamped what the nonprofit sector could muster. By midcentury, the typical scientist was no longer an independent investigator toiling in splendid isolation or an unworldly academic ensconced in an upper floor of the ivory tower but an increasingly well-paid company man working project to project on tasks selected by superiors with the goal of enhancing the bottom line.

There are revealing analogies here with the twentieth-century fate of two other groups: artists and scholars. Like scientists, both once laid claim to inherit the priestly functions and distinctions: asceticism, moral superiority, access to higher truth. Both saw their endeavors as ends in themselves, above the vulgar scrum of the marketplace. Both imagined themselves as constituting a select fellowship or caste. And over the course of the past century, both gradually surrendered these claims for the sake of social normalcy and material security. As their ranks multiplied, funding increased and organizational structures elaborated themselves, their distinct modes of being were increasingly subjected to institutional supervision and homogenization. Now we have the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the MLA job process, turning out our modern-day seminarians. All three groups, in short, became professionalized. In describing the descent of science from calling to occupation, Shapin overlooks this useful, and crucial, term of analysis. A profession is neither a vocation nor a job but a typically uneasy modern compromise (like the middle class, or the novel) between these spiritual poles.

By the middle of the twentieth century, something else had occurred, an event that radically altered the way that science was conducted and the scientist regarded: the Manhattan Project. Its ramifications were bureaucratic, political and ethical as well as military. The creation of the atom bomb demonstrated that science could be organized--and organized by the government--on a hitherto unimagined scale. It also showed that science could be used as an instrument of state power exponentially more potent than previously recognized. And, of course, it raised the direst possible questions about the scientist's moral constitution and moral responsibility. The sorcerer had become the sorcerer's apprentice.

All of these issues grew more urgent as the cold war set in. The government needed scientists, but in the McCarthy era, it also distrusted their necessarily internationalist outlook (and, in many cases, their cosmopolitan origin), a tension put on public display in the fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer because of his supposed Communist sympathies. But Washington also wanted more than just the geniuses. The National Institute of Health was reorganized, and pluralized, in 1948 (it now comprises some twenty-seven institutes and centers). The National Science Foundation was established in 1950. NASA and DARPA were founded in 1958. Such was the scale of the new national project that the country needed everybody it could get. Time and Life, the Rockefeller Foundation and Margaret Mead were recruited to the task of convincing a generation of young people that the scientist needn't be exceptionally gifted (the merely average were welcome), socially peculiar (scientists were regular folks) or above material rewards (science could be a path to middle-class comfort). Sputnik only quickened the anxieties that drove these transformations. The era of Big Science, and ordinary scientists, had arrived.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size