Shaping Science

A short version of a Research Enterprise article on Daniel Sarewitz’s “Saving Science” is posted as correspondence at The New Atlantis, where Sarewitz also responds to various comments on his paper. In part, Sarewitz gathers some of those comments into a quote attributed to scientist Michael Polanyi to the effect that science cannot be shaped. Sarewitz disagrees:

Yet the recent history of the complex U.S. science enterprise, which I sought in part to portray in my article, is a flat-out contradiction of Polanyi’s position: We consciously shaped science with the intent and result of capturing practical benefits.

It’s in this claim that I differ from Sarewitz. Where does Sarewitz get his “we”–how is it possible that he can make a general claim that we have “consciously shaped science” with any intent at all? What is this thing science, that can be shaped? Sarewitz asserts as a fact the thing we are debating. It’s not that science cannot be shaped–the question is whether dong science on the frontier operates so well if it is shaped by anyone other than those at the frontier. At the frontiers, I suggest, we don’t know the shape of science until people recognize what they are doing is science.

Sarewitz asserts that we shape science consciously to “capture practical benefits” and that if we substituted elite opinions about that shaping we would do a better conscious job not only of shaping science but also capturing practical benefits from science so shaped. For that, Sarewitz argues, scientists have to “get out of the lab” and “into the real world.” The real world, then, like the we, is a technical term that means roughly, “obeying someone else, an elite.”

By contrast, Vannevar Bush argues that at the frontiers of science, we need the free play of free intellects–not obeying anyone, but accountable for what they find and bring back for the rest of us. Bush’s argument is that John von Neumann or Richard Feynman does not do better science because he is made to obey an ex-general or a celebrity advocate or a tech billionaire or a government official. That’s Bush’s argument from experience. Sarewitz simply contradicts Bush. As Monty Python has it, contradiction is not a good argument. Bush argues that to expand the frontiers of science–that is, to learn to see new observables and provide for those observables new explanations for underlying physical principles, we cannot rely on managers to dictate the problems, the projects, the observations, the analysis, or the publication. Free play of free intellects is a decidedly anti-management argument about how we discover. It has nothing to do with we consciously shaping science to capture practical benefits. At the frontier, at the unknown, scientists must shape their science. We must not–cannot–do it for them. 

Of course, it is possible for we to claim we represent the real world and consciously shape science better than any scientist and thus capture its benefits. This is possible because fantasy cast as policy is possible, and when acted upon by we becomes policy.

Bush had a different, even more sophisticated, view of how science operates. He distinguishes science at the frontiers with the science that gets conducted in company and government laboratories. The premises are different. The timelines are different. The justifications and funding are different. Sarewitz, apparently, argues that universities ought to reconfigure to be like companies or the military and demand, and manage, scientists to get beneficial results. Less academic freedom and more directed, indentured obedience. Now it may be that science in universities has become enough of a crock that Sarewitz can feel justified in going after it. There, we might have some agreement. But Sarewitz argues for making university work more company-like, more socialist, more constrained by whoever happens to have the political power to decide what we most need. Enslave the best minds to whatever the political whim of the day might be–spam filters or better abortion methods or drugs that prolong but do not cure cancer. Fine. That’s an argument to float out there.

Vannver Bush posits three distinct venues for the conduct and use of science. The first is the existing establishment laboratories–government, corporate, and even non-profit contract research laboratories. There’s science to be had here, and it does its master’s bidding–and even here, there’s science that breaks out from what’s expected and directed, as serendipity, as accident. That, in many ways, is just what the concept of invention is all about–see the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Dubilier. An invention may stand outside what is expected and assigned. An invention may be the result of free play, even if that play must be mentally covert, varying from obedience to a master. When such an invention arises in an establishment laboratory, the establishment often, usually, generally is unable to accommodate the invention. The establishment does not drop what it has set itself to do in favor of the new invention. Consider PARC. Xerox classified inventions into strategic (serving established company interests) and non-strategic. Strategic inventions were taken up into the company, a new division might be started around each, and then the inventions would, generally, die. Non-strategic inventions, by contrast, the company cut loose–and we have ethernet, postscript, the graphical user interface and the mouse.

University “technology transfer” (as it is loosely and contradictorily labeled) represents an effort by establishment interests to capture what ought to be “free inventions.” Even if PARC did not view an invention as “strategic,” it should not release its claim on the invention unless it can profit from doing so. What isn’t “strategic” to one bit of the establishment might prove to be strategic to some other bit, or to a speculator aiming to beat up some other bit of the establishment. That is, university technology transfer (and the federal government’s imitation of this same behavior) aims to capture “free” science before that science has any chance to be free at all. In Sarewitz notation, science must be captured (and managed by ex-generals and celebrities) for its practical benefits to be captured. Because that’s better conscious shaping of science, you see. It’s not that science just happens, but that we have to do our science in style, with velvet conscious shaping managed by experts in style.

Bush makes a distinction between establishment science and science at the frontiers. Science at the frontiers is best done with federal funding when it is released from the requirements and justifications and controls of established interests. That’s what Bush is arguing for in recommending the creation of a national research foundation standing outside of the established government. A Smithsonian Institution for research at the frontiers. Individuals working to support individuals, but using federal money, just as they had to explore geographically. The last thing we might want is for a celebrity to tell scientists what to do, at the frontiers. “We have got an unexpected result in a controlled observation based on a premise that’s so loopy that no one will believe us–what does the celebrity say we should do next?” No, the celebrity’s role ought to be to run public cover for the free play–“Leave them alone to sort it out!”–not to “manage” the scientists or consciously better shape the science.

Science at the borders–science that faces the unknown unknowns–isn’t managed. If some frontier discovery comes from managed science–can happen–that discovery is most often a mistake, an accident that does not come from management but rather runs against management, defies management. Bush argues that scientists do better frontier research when they don’t have to evade management, don’t have to beg for money by promising practical benefits, and don’t have to suck up to whoever sets the agenda for government or corporate research. The federal government should fund scientists at the frontier so they can be at the frontier. That’s Bush’s point.

What Bush cannot deal with is what I’ll call the Feyerabend fuss. Feyerabend comes later, of course, so Bush is somewhat at a disadvantage. Feyerabend argues in an essay in Against Method that academic freedom is inappropriate for the conduct of science. Scientists, according to Feyerabend, must be held accountable when they accept government money. Otherwise, we have the worst outcome–what amounts to public stipends for scientists to fart around going through the motions of doing science and not doing anything at all. Sarewitz might like the Feyerabend fuss–federal funding and whip-smart management gets us to practical benefits a lot faster than creating sinecures for people with scientific credentials. No doubt. But the Feyerabend fuss concerns the institutionalization of science. It is a distrust of scientists. It posits that scientists are human and lazy and willing to be bought like everyone else. And Feyerabend has a point.

Bush goes the other way and argues that we must work with confidence, not fear. That is, science advances when we identify people who are making their way at the scientific frontier and we offer assistance. Bush assumes that we will find people who can recognize scientific frontiers and the integrity of individuals well enough to make good choices about who to offer funding.

Back when federal funding expanded after Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier was published, the debate by accountants and lawyers and university officials was whether funding should go to individuals or to projects. If to individuals, so the discussion went, then when an individual was judged unworthy, the rejection drove to their very souls. By contrast, if the rejection was simply that a project description had not been written so well as others, then the rejected scientist retained dignity and merely needed to improve the style by which they made their request for funding. Thus, we have “sponsored projects” rather than “sponsored investigators” in federal funding. (Contrast that with Howard Hughes investigators and MacArthur Foundation grants.) Imagine if you will a twilight zone in which there were no sponsored projects at the frontiers–no trying to beg better than hundreds of other beggars, based on project descriptions. Instead, federal support found people who were working on frontiers and slipped them some support as needed. What would that be like? We would have to have confidence in the people doing the research and in the people slipping in the support. Accountants and lawyers and bureaucrats would hate such a thing–and indeed have worked to make sure it doesn’t happen.

But there’s a third element to Bush’s vision of innovation. We’ve discussed the established order laboratories in government and industry. We’ve discussed the science on the frontiers, and how that science prospers when it isn’t subservient to established orders, when it is “free.” We have noted that established orders are troubled by things being “free”–and even Feyerabend, who argued against method in science still managed to fuss about the need for management to manage the lack of method. Bush’s third element I have called the “unexpected model of innovation.” It’s the managed skunk works, the research lab funded by industry but not directed by industry; the Area 51, the Skunk Works of Lockheed Martin. (Lockheed Martin took out registered trademarks on Skunk Works in 1999. Here’s an ngram of the effect of doing so–one more emblem of how corporate management depresses usage:

Bush’s unexpected model of innovation operates in this space between frontiers science (and all other science) and the scientific efforts of the established orders. In this space, scientists, engineers, and fabricators develop things that an established order wouldn’t think of or support and frontiers researchers aren’t interested in or prepared to develop. In addition to corporate labs–Almaden Research Center, say, or Microsoft Research–we may add a kind of “startups” company that obtains its funding to do something fundamentally new. So not just any startup. Not any enterpreneurping. But what we see in, say, SpaceX or Blue Origin for development of new rocket systems. Things that NASA, the established order, apparently cannot bring itself to do. This unexpected model of innovation is interestingly connected to both free play and to establishment interests. One designs with an awareness of manufacturing and use requirements, but one also designs under the influence of free intellects–people who do not depend on obedience to hold their jobs. If you can follow this bit, then you see what Bush was up to. These people work together to make something new because they decide to do it. It’s like an Indiegogo or Kickstarter project that gets funding without having to appeal to the public; a startup that doesn’t have to appeal to wealthy speculative investors. The results of this work are unexpected to established orders–even unwanted, unspecified, can’t or shouldn’t be done. It was just this unexpectedness that gave innovative weapons systems a practical advantage in a time of war. The challenge for Bush was to see if the system that worked for the military would also work for medicine or for communications.

The results are split. The system has worked wonderfully for communications–we have digital computers and the internet and the web and open software of all sorts. And the system has largely failed medicine, shut down by the pharmaceutical industry and by federal officials and by university administrators.

So here’s the irony in Sarewitz’s argument against Bush: as I read Sarewitz’s appeal for scientists to leave the unreal world of university research (perhaps good advice) accept management by someone else, Sarewitz isn’t so much (or ought not) be arguing for how science in general progresses, but Sarewitz is arguing for pretty much what Bush argued for–a space outside the established order, where scientists can be directed and their work “shaped” to designs that can have practical benefits. But that space, for Bush, was not the frontier science but the use of frontier science, and other science, and engineering, and a knowledge of industry manufacturing, and actual field use and requirements. The unexpected model of innovation depends on technology transfer–but that transfer is a form of import–take in the things needed to do something that an established order would not do, would not know about, and if they did know about it, they would dither for years on whether they should do anything that might not work out, might make them look bad, might disrupt what they were already working on.

I might go so far to propose that Sarewitz would like Bush’s unexpected model of innovation. Far from Bush being a seductive manipulator, Bush laid out something that produced innovation when needed during World War 2. Bush identified a key element in that operation–access to new science to go along with the existing science and a keen awareness of manufacturing and design for field use. Bush argued that the federal government had a legitimate interest in supporting new science. That insight got lost and rolled up by various bureaucrats concerned about what bureaucrats are concerned about. Sarewitz proposes better management of science without distinguishing activities that might do things with science. If he did, he might then suggest that mephitis projects (Lockheed owns “Skunk Works,” heh) would work better if managed by celebrities or ex-generals rather than bureaucrats. And in that, he’d no doubt be right, and he’d be right there with Vannaver Bush.

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