The Republic of Engineering Is Not a Democracy

...and neither is the Republic of Science, says G. Pascal Zachary in his new series for IEEE Spectrum, "The Scientific Estate"

6 min read

The Republic of Engineering Is Not a Democracy

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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.

More recently, science and engineering have become virtually indistinguishable. Engineers make scientific breakthroughs in micromachines and structures. Scientists use engineering principles to create new instruments that in turn lead to new knowledge. The blurring of lines and roles between the two broad areas of science and engineering is now so common that the term technoscience seems appropriate to describe a two-way traffic between scientists and engineers, where each group nourishes the other. No less than Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of the last century, believed, in the words of the great historian of technology, Thomas Hughes, that "a hard and fast line between technology and science did not exist."

Increasingly, science and engineers, while trained in distinct disciplines, work in cross-disciplinary teams, doing stuff that seems of a single piece. Scientists and engineers, in short, are indistinguishable, now perhaps more than ever. As Henry Petroski has noted in his most recent book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010), "scientists can act like engineers (and vice versa)."

In future posts in The Scientific Estate series, I will join those who view science and engineering as part of a single continuum. Significantly, I perceive engineering as the equal of science; both are part of a two-way dialogue in which technoscientific knowledge gets passed back and forth between two broad but still-distinct professional communities. These two communities often overlap: From biomedicine to wind energy to geoengineering to digital media, scientists and engineers often work in hybridized, cross-disciplinary teams where members aren’t pigeonholed but routinely traverse traditional boundaries. Increasingly, science and engineering are two sides of the same coin, or even one and the same. The tools and instruments of both fields, now virtually all digital, have hastened a tendency toward merger that dates back more than a century. Many scholars and practitioners agree that engineers create new knowledge as often as scientists do these days and that scientists discover not only knowledge but also new innovations. In the common mind, "science" holds special sway, but engineers rely on scientific methods, tools, and knowledge to solve problems as often as scientists themselves.

Science and engineering remain, to again quote Petroski, "distinct human endeavors," but they share a common relation to society at large. In political terms, I will argue in this series, science and engineering combine to form a single "scientific estate." Just as journalists have long claimed a privileged role in American life—"the Fourth Estate," a role supported by declarations of the Founding Fathers and a central provision on the press and on free expression in the Bill of Rights—so, too, do scientists and engineers, the technoscientists of today and tomorrow, make up an estate of their own, as influential in its way as the tripartite republican system of the judiciary, the executive, and the legislative.

Just as journalists eschewed government regulation and managed their own affairs through an ill-defined dialectic between professional expertise and individual conscience, so, too, have scientists and engineers—through peer review of each others’ research, professional associations, and individual achievement and the pursuit of problems that animate them personally—created their own processes of self-governance. The scholar Michael Polanyi, in a famous 1962 essay, christened this form of self-governance "the Republic of Science."

I choose to reference the journalistic moniker "the Fourth Estate" because scientists and engineers, if rarely constrained by the government or compelled by the masses, nonetheless face constraints from the demands of their own employers and the aspirations of their research funders. In choosing "scientific estate," I’ve also consciously sought to emulate the great scholar Don K. Price, whose landmark study of the relationship between technoscience and democracy he chose to call The Scientific Estate. Forty-five years have passed since the late Professor Price coined his perspicacious term. I am happy to give it new life.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the "Ping" column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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