This week’s midterm elections in the United States were about many things, but the public agenda for science and engineering—for R&D—was not among the issues in dispute. Democrats and Republicans may disagree about almost everything, but on the subject of what technoscientific research to pursue and which engineering advances to promote, the nation’s political elite is virtually silent.
That science and engineering receive bipartisan support is reason enough to write a series of posts under the title of "The Scientific Estate." Because of broad agreement between normally bitterly divided factions, the important political, social, and economic questions about what research is pursued, how it is pursued, and why are rarely asked. I’ll ask these questions, and try to answer them, in my new series of posts for IEEE Spectrum.
The political economy of R&D is important. The U.S. government spends more than $145 billion a year on work by scientists and engineers clustered across industry, academia, government, and even the military. While the R&D enterprise as a whole is varied and far-flung, the national consensus is that more spending is better. The only valid terrain for disagreement isn’t whether Americans should climb scientific and technological mountains or even which ones—they should climb them all!—but on how much taxpayers and the government should spend on these pursuits.
Posts in The Scientific Estate series won’t be limited to the usual debates about the size of budgets for this enterprise or that. More broadly, I’ll examine the essential tension between democracy and science. This tension presents itself in a manifold of guises but boils down to a stubborn truth: Self-governing, empiricist, and seemingly value neutral, R&D exists in a distinct zone from the messy, open-ended, and unpredictable worlds of politics and the economic and social decisions produced by the political process to order and allocate resources. Whenever the public wants to impose a set of requirements on the outcomes of R&D or the way it is conducted—whether to conduct stem-cell research, build a new weapons system, or impose new energy-efficiency requirements—conflicts arise. As David Guston, a leading theorist in the field of the social studies of science, wrote in a classic 1993 paper on the subject for the journal Social Epistemology, "there is indeed an essential tension between science and democracy, based in the exclusionary and authoritarian nature of science and the egalitarian requirements of democracy, [and] such a tension is irreconcilable through institutions based on both. Although institutions may be designed to incorporate both democratic and scientific principles, these principles will either conflict or one must be given priority over the other."
So what does any of this high-minded talk have to do with engineering?
Actually, everything. Many who study science and society, including Guston, a colleague of mine at Arizona State University, use the word science as shorthand for a more expansive yet more precise term, technoscience, which refers to the reality that scientists and engineers do their work in increasingly indistinguishable ways. While scientists seem to achieve more public acclaim than engineers, probably because they are perceived as making "discoveries" about the nature of reality, engineers also create new knowledge, though often in the process of pursuing a pragmatic end, such as the creation of a new process or product. No one would confuse the design of the new iPhone with the discovery of a new planet, but both achievements rely almost equally on engineering and scientific knowledge and skills.
I’m neither a scientist nor an engineer, but I’ve been a close observer of both fields for 30 years and am especially mindful of what science and engineering share. Since 1980, I’ve reported on technological innovation for the leading newspapers and magazines. I’ve also written a biography of the first presidential adviser on science and technology, the esteemed electrical engineer and pioneering computer designer Vannevar Bush. In my book, Endless Frontier, I describe his critical influence on MIT, the organization of the Manhattan Project, the creation of the National Science Foundation, and on the partnership between government and the research community that was born in World War II and has continued to this day. To help renew my studies of the politics of science, and deepen my understanding of the relationship between science, technology, and society, in August I joined a vibrant center for the study of these subjects: the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes, at Arizona State University in Tempe.
One lesson I’ve learned from decades of observing and chronicling technoscientific change is that the line between fundamental research and applied development is blurry and perhaps even mythical. Vannevar Bush was among the first to make the once-popular distinction between "basic" and "applied" research, with the former being the preserve of scientists and the latter being the stuff of engineering. Bush made this distinction most famously in his 1945 report, "Science—The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President," in which he argued that the government should provide a kind of permanent welfare system for university scientists, by providing them with contracts to conduct "basic" research which would in turn create the "new knowledge" that engineers would apply to economic and social problems. The distinction was always dicey, and when Bush died in 1974, it was already breaking down completely, the victim of profound changes in the conduct of research and its application to urgent problems.