The State of the Scientist

Commentary / by Steven Shapin /

The identity of the modern scientist is, in every possible sense, a work in progress.

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The dissolution of boundaries between academia and industry has given enormous strength to modern American science: resources to do what scientists want to do, time (substantially freed from academic teaching and administration) to do it, and the reputation that comes from aligning science with the concrete goods — better communications, better health, more energy-efficient products, and enhanced national security —  so evidently valued by citizens who may have little or no concern for the pursuit of knowledge “for its own sake.” And if the scientists inhabiting such institutions can now make a good living, or even on occasion fabulous wealth, then that too augments the value that our sort of society grants science, perhaps acting as effectively as any other inducement to attract young people to careers in science and engineering.

But two problems seem to flow from this success story. The first is a traditional one faced by scientists who work in democratic societies. The evidently useful will be valued, and supported, at the expense of the evidently useless, and no overall credibility associated with the Linear Argument will do much good for the evidently useless: research on the evolution of Central American birds, brachiopod paleontology, the chemical composition of Pluto, and, indeed, the sex life of quails. The version of the Linear Argument our society seems to find credible is the one that says, “There’s no certainty that the evidently useless will actually turn out to be useless,” but still, that’s not quite the same thing as the version that says, “All knowledge will ultimately turn out to be useful.”

The second problem concerns the integrity associated with the scientific life and the authority of scientists. The increasing alignment of science with commercial institutions carries a risk: the loss in the public mind of the idea of an independent scientific voice — not truth speaking to power but power shaping what counts as truth. Thus, we have the Bush administration’s attempt to muzzle one of its leading climate scientists, reports of routine political interference in the scientific work of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Big Pharma ghostwriting papers supporting the efficacy of new drugs. Yet the enfolding of science into institutions of wealth generation and power projection makes independence that much harder to recognize and to acknowledge. And when scientific knowledge becomes patentable property, a state secret, or a plaything of political ideology, then science loses its independence from civic institutions. We’re still a long way from the general “corruption” of science —  witness the moral outrage attending stories about commercial or political incursions into science. But if it came to pass that these associations count as normal, then the scientific voice would no longer sound independent. The material utility of science that is a substantial basis for its success would then undermine itself. To be a modern scientist is to be an employee, but the job must have a degree of autonomy or scientists will be of no use — to the institutions that engage their services or to the public.

Seeing modern scientists in an uneasy position between the polarized force fields of truth and commerce, or of truth and politics, is one way of understanding the current condition. It is a story that has deep roots in history, that is readily recognized in our culture, and that powerfully mobilizes the passions. The story is not wrong, but it is incomplete. It fails to grasp some radical changes in the institutional condition of the scientist and in the nature of scientific work that are even now taking place at the leading edges of technoscientific change. Consider an emerging field like synthetic biology, which aims to build biological systems at the molecular level that do not exist in nature. The circumstances in which synthetic biologists live and work are certainly not typical of the modern scientific life, but they are arguably emblematic of the direction of major 21st century changes.

Many researchers doing this sort of work couldn’t care less whether their activities are called science or technology. Their chief concern is the opportunity to do interesting research. And a growing number are leveraging their expertise against some of the world’s most intractable problems: They say that what moves them is the possibility to develop new malaria drugs or to design microbes to solve the energy crisis. Some synthetic biologists work in universities, others in industry, and still others in new public-private ventures that defy those categories altogether. The National Science Foundation, for example, recently committed tens of millions of dollars to SynBERC, a multi-site academic synthetic biology consortium, on the condition that it not only have significant industrial ties, but also that the research itself becomes self-financing within 10 years, while the Gates Foundation has poured $42 million into SynBERC’s malaria work. Drew Endy, a leading academic synthetic biologist affiliated with the consortium, freely acknowledges that industry is the innovation leader in the field. At the same time, he has established an open source framework for the free sharing of standard molecular components, modeled historically on 19th century patterns of American mechanical engineering and on the contemporary open source software movement. Endy says he wants to make everything publicly available and that we can’t afford to go the way of a biological Microsoft: It makes him “physically angry” to patent entities that already exist in nature, yet he and his associates have founded a company to patent and license inventions that has attracted over $40 million from some of the most high-powered venture capital firms in the country.

In a recent roundtable discussion published in the journal Biosocieties, synthetic biologists countered concerns about bioterrorism by invoking well-established arguments that this is the state’s concern, that government support for this work enhances preparedness, and that the global practice of traditional scientific openness will be a bulwark against the militarization of engineered microbes. The likelihood of intense ethical and moral concerns about research like synthetic biology has propelled scientists beyond occasional internecine conversations about the “ethical, social, and legal implications” of their work and into new collaborations with humanists and social scientists about the very nature of the work and the institutional environments in which it is taking place. Increasingly, social scientists want to be players, not mere outside commentators, in a major technoscientific enterprise, and they’ve received a government mandate to play that role. SynBERC’s funding from the NSF, for instance, has been at least partly contingent on its inclusion of a “human practices” component, led by an anthropologist and a political scientist. Synthetic biologists reluctantly admit that this sort of collaboration is not something that comes naturally to them but that it’s a necessary condition of forging ahead in a culture where the walls of science have become partly transparent. No one knows how any of this is going to play out, but one possibility is a redrawing of the map of the sciences, with an adjustment of the boundaries between the natural and social sciences.

As we enter the 21st century, new institutional configurations for doing science emerge, together with new scientific agendas and new conceptions of what it is to be a scientist. Some participants and observers of the scene celebrate these changes; others are seriously worried about them. We can be sure of only one thing: The identity of the modern scientist is, in every possible sense, a work in progress.

Steven Shapin is a historian and sociologist of science at Harvard University. His latest book, Never Pure, examines the shifting modern roles and definitions of scientists.

Originally published July 8, 2010

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