The practice of science in a democratic society

Reuters

Technicians monitor the Alcator C-Mod experiment at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 24, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • Science consists of using the experimental or empirical method to gain knowledge about the material world.

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  • The focus on overhead has made grant-getting, rather than teaching or research activity per se, the primary responsibility of faculty in the sciences.

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  • At least some portion of universities' scientific research should be pro bono.

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This essay is the ninth in a series exploring the role of the professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.

René Descartes, one of the founding figures of modern science, predicted that the new mechanistic approach to understanding the natural world would yield great benefits for humanity, particularly with regard to improving health and longevity. For this reason, Descartes argued that public funds should be used to support scientific research. Descartes proved to be prophetic on both counts. The benefits of science have far exceeded anything Descartes could have imagined, and the public funding of science has become an accepted role of government in every industrially advanced nation. The result has been the creation of a new profession—that of scientist—unknown to Descartes and his contemporaries, whose scientific investigations remained the self-supported avocations of gentlemen of independent means.

The general public and their elected representatives seem to agree that scientific research is an important, even necessary, component of a modern economy. But the scientific profession is not without its contradictions. Government funding of science is justified by the argument that scientific research benefits the public, but modern science has become so technical and specialized that the public are rarely able to appreciate the potential value of the research their taxes fund. Scientific literacy remains low even in the most technologically advanced societies. The fact that science is mysterious to the general public has helped endow its practitioners with an aura of wonder in the popular mind. As a result, scientists have increasingly become accustomed to thinking of themselves as constituting an all-knowing elite that need answer to few or none.

The high level of public funding devoted to science exacerbates this tendency. In 2011 (the most recent year for which complete figures are available), federal research and development (R&D) spending exceeded $142 billion,[1] amounting to nearly 4 percent of the government’s $3.6 trillion in total outlays for that year.[2]

Maintaining this high level of funding has become a major goal of the US scientific community and of the higher education establishment, which has come to depend on federal R&D dollars. Yet, as in other areas of public life, the dependence on government largesse has given rise to numerous distortions, which if unchecked have the potential to cause real harm to the scientific profession and to the universities that serve to foster both it and an informed and thoughtful citizenry. I address these issues from the perspective of a practicing scientist who has obtained and spent my fair share of federal research funding over my career, and of a university professor who has witnessed firsthand some of the undesirable (if often unintended) consequences of federal R&D funding on US universities.

The economic and social benefits derived from scientific research do not require elaboration. Technological advances have spurred industrial growth for the past several centuries, and the rise of science and modern industrial economies went hand in hand. Research in medicine, public health, and agriculture has eliminated some diseases, improved overall longevity, and assured a more reliable food supply. Yet the economic benefits of research do not require that it be funded by governments. Indeed it has sometimes been argued that the technological research that reaps the greatest economic benefits is funded by private industry. Be that as it may, applied technological advances invariably rely on basic research, which private industry may be reluctant to fund if the practical applications are not immediately obvious. On the other hand, in the US context, public funding of research need not imply (as it generally has since World War II) a dominant role for the federal government. State governments and private foundations have historically played key roles in basic research in the United States.

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Notes
1. John E. Sargent Jr., Federal Research and Development Funding: FY2013 (Congressional Research Service, 2013), www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42410.pdf.
2. Office of Management and Budget. Fiscal Year 2013: Historical Tables: Budget of the US Government (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2013), www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2013/assets/hist.pdf.

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