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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > Bookshelf Detail

Schrödinger's Goose


THE SCIENTIFIC LIFE: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. Steven Shapin. xviii + 468 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2008. $29.

The%20theoretical%20physicist%20Richard%20FeyThe%20theoretical%20physicist%20Richard%20FeynmannmanClick to Enlarge ImageWe are encouraged to think of the scientist as holding on to an unconventional, childlike curiosity into adulthood. But the ideal of science as lingering childhood has given way to one of timeless adolescence. Richard Feynman and James Watson are the poster boys for this kind of scientist, who bathes in the fountain of perpetual fun. The triumph of that cultural ideal coincided with the heightened recognition of a deeply serious role for science in affairs of state. The legend of Feynman originated during his time at Los Alamos, which he described as a delightful time of cracking safes and seducing girls in bars. Surely he was joking, and the blackness of the humor is made evident by juxtaposing his antics with disturbing images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Eniwetok, of tens of thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles poised to destroy life on Earth, and hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers laboring every workday to increase the power and precision of those weapons. The popular contemporary understanding that doing science is about fun has an aura of whimsical self-indulgence and offers comic relief and distraction from realities of this kind.

Steven Shapin, one of our most creative and productive historians of science, has spent much of his career writing about the 17th century against the background of the 20th. In The Scientific Life he reverses field, drawing on perspectives he worked out in writings on Robert Boyle, the Royal Society and the early-modern invention of laboratory science to comprehend the scientific role in our age of technoscience. At first glance, we see only contrasts. Boyle, a rich nobleman, was beholden to no one and claimed the authority to pronounce on matters of truth based on his status as an independent gentleman with landed wealth. Science now is a job, open to anyone with the appropriate training, and is supported on a large scale in many kinds of institutions.

Max Weber summed up these great historical changes in the character of science and scholarship when he wrote that Wissenschaft had been transformed from a calling into a career. Shapin highlights a doctrine of "moral equivalence"—the idea that the practice of science implies no higher morality—that arose with Weber and was formulated with epigrammatic clarity by the American sociologist Robert Merton. We no longer expect scientists to display qualities of personal integrity beyond what we would demand of lawyers, businesspeople or store clerks. Their involvement with war and their willing subordination to the expectations of profit-driven industry seem to support this doctrine of equivalence, and the modern intermingling of academic research with entrepreneurship exemplifies the decline of an ideal of disinterested truth. Yet Shapin is not so sure, and for him the persistence of a moral vocabulary in science is one of the key continuities between the 17th century and the 21st.

Moral vocation in science has never excluded its mingling with wealth and power. The monarchs who sponsored scientific academies in the 17th century were already looking for expert counsel on practical issues involving fortifications, medicine, metallurgy, astrological prediction, navigation, pumps and agriculture. Elite scientific practitioners, from that day to this, have willingly taken on such responsibilities, although they have preferred to define their role as advancing technology serendipitously rather than purposefully. The mobilization of science in direct pursuit of technological advance, according to a formulation much favored by scientists, allows only for incremental progress, whereas the freewheeling pursuit of truth about nature makes for stunning breakthroughs. This is the lesson of the goose that laid golden eggs, from Aesop's fable, which Shapin recites over and over, sometimes in quotation and sometimes in the gently ironical voice of indirect discourse. To abandon basic or fundamental or pure research for technological projects is to kill the productive goose for a few eggs now. However, university scientists who pursue patentable discoveries in hopes of selling their work or exploiting it as entrepreneurs seem to imagine that they can have their goose and kill it too. The funding regime for science created by the Bayh-Dole legislation of 1980 virtually requires American universities to pursue patents whenever possible, leaving the modern goose in as parlous a condition as Schrödinger's cat. We can't say if it is alive—if the research is basic or applied—until we decide how to look.

Molecular geneticists and information technologists, among others, like to think of our current condition, a tight interweaving of pathbreaking science with commercial exploitation, as radically new. Shapin seems sometimes to endorse this understanding, and he even draws (again in an ambiguous voice) on C. P. Snow's line from The Two Cultures (1959) to suggest that entrepreneurial scientists have "the future in their bones." And yet his task in this book is to give that attitude a history as well as to situate it socially.

Not least significant among the novelties of recent science, Shapin argues, is its social organization. Science was long idealized as an individualistic endeavor, one that incorporates a kind of detachment whose most perfect form requires monastic solitude of the sort sought by Martin Arrowsmith at the end of Sinclair Lewis's novel.

The more systematic integration of scientific with industrial research in the early 20th century seemed problematical in part because the science had been de-individualized. Wouldn't social pressures compromise the integrity of science, and wouldn't the creativity of science be stifled by bureaucracy? Industrial research managers tried, with some success, to direct the science with a light hand while preserving for the scientists a modest independence. Sometimes, as with the invention of the transistor, it was difficult to distinguish scientific novelty from the commercial goals of the corporation. We might even claim, inverting the allegory, that important "basic science" emerged as a golden egg from a research process administered for technological and commercial purposes.

The collective organization of science was by no means confined to private corporations. Postwar particle accelerators, building on the Los Alamos model, instantiated the new "big science" in paradigmatic form, and modern biomedical research routinely involves dozens of investigators. Even if patents and the sale of products are not contemplated, the principal investigator requires very serious money to keep such an operation running, and many spend a third to one half of their time writing grants or contracts and cultivating patrons.

This is the background against which young scientists decide whether to work in private industry or to pursue research and teaching at a university. As part of his investigation, Shapin interviewed scientists who could have gone either way, and who had experience both of universities and of private companies, asking about the comparison. He quotes them describing their choices the way political consultants frame electoral decisions, mainly as avoiding the greater evil. Shapin first discusses several scientists who went back to university positions after trying out industry, and who complain of the tight constraints under which they had had to work in industry. Their companies, they say, tolerated only what could produce quick benefits to the bottom line. The scientists who stayed with industry do not really refute any of this, but counter that university research is just as bad. The lead investigator does not allow subordinates free choice but assigns a project that fits into the collective effort. Even those who have the status and resources to direct their own labs must choose problems and methods that promise quick results so that they will have something to report in the next round of grant proposals. Add to that the meddling of university committees, bureaucratic requirements and teaching, and the university is, so they say, even worse than a corporate employer.

Shapin offers reasons to be more positive about the scientific life in our commercialized culture. Echoing other informants, he wonders whether business is not just as demanding intellectually as science, especially when the entrepreneur is trying to make the world a better place. He insists, against Weber, that scientific entrepreneurs have, in common with early modern natural philosophers, a sense of vocation, and that their more altruistic ambitions (typically, to save lives) are counted in their favor when venture capitalists (whom he also credits with a measure of idealism) decide which business plans to back. Based on his participation in university-hosted networking receptions where investors meet scientists seeking capital, and on what he has learned of the interweaving of business relationships with solidarity-building activities such as mountain biking, he argues that investment decisions are not abstractly capitalistic; rather, they are based on personal relationships, including assessments of moral virtue.

Anyone who has witnessed capitalism from outside the economics textbooks knows that business life depends deeply on personal relationships of trust. The same is true of science, and Shapin has taught us as much as anyone about what this means in practice. Trust is rarely absolute, and in business and science as in most human affairs it is important also to develop a nuanced sense of when and how to withhold trust. For an outsider, it is difficult to know how seriously to take the scientists' avowals of intention to do good in the world. Even the most idealistic of biotech researchers are destined to become dependent on medical corporations to test their products and bring them to market. "Big Pharma" and its ilk have acquired, I think justly, a bad reputation, and any residual altruism on the part of the scientists will be the first victim of their involvement. They profess to be humanitarians, but if we measure that claim against the actual consequences of high-tech science-based medicine, our admiration must surely fade.

In the same way, if we look beyond parables of geese and gold, we must doubt that basic science is the indispensable engine of technological change, the prime mover for economic prosperity. This is a legend, one that is repeated like a mantra by advocates of science in search of resources, but which is not well supported by historical and economic research. Universities and corporate labs alike must now justify their budgets by claiming economic payoff. In pursuit of research money, scientists have propagated dubious scientific claims, such as single-gene causation of all kinds of human traits and maladies. Those who found companies, not surprisingly, like to emphasize the symbiosis of good science and profit-making enterprise.

On the goals of research and its practical contributions to our lives, Shapin tends to report the words and choices of the scientists and investors without endorsing or doubting them. In his preface he explicitly denies any wish to celebrate the role of technoscience in late modern American culture. On the whole, he leaves it to other scholars and social scientists to labor to determine how claims for entrepreneurial science stand up against the evidence of experience. It remains quite possible that its advantages have been oversold, and that our contemporary funding regimes are tending, subtly, to erode the integrity of science.

Theodore M. Porter is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton University Press, 1995) and Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (Princeton University Press, 2004).


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