How can we justify spending taxpayers’ money on science when there is so much pressure to cut public spending, and so many other popular things to spend the money on, like the National Health Service? People close to the policy-making process tend to stress that if you want to persuade HM Treasury of the need to fund science, there’s only one argument they will listen to – that science spending will lead to more economic growth. Yet the economic instrumentalism of this argument grates for many people. Surely it must be possible to justify the elevated pursuit of knowledge in less mercenary, less meretricious terms? If our political economy was different, perhaps it would be possible. But in a system in which money is increasingly seen as the measure of all things, it’s difficult to see how things could be otherwise. If you don’t like this situation, it’s not science, but broader society, that you’ve got to change.
The relentless focus on the economic justification of science is relatively recent, but that doesn’t mean that what went before was a golden age. The dominant motivation for state support of science in the twentieth century wasn’t to make money, but to win wars. From the development of the chemicals industry to make explosives, from Nobel to Haber and Bosch, the early electronics, computing and control systems that were developed for gunnery control, bombing and rockets, the development of aeronautics, radar, and, of course, the development of nuclear weapons, there was barely a branch of science that couldn’t be brought to bear on the military technologies of the twentieth century’s two world wars and the following cold war. Even a subject as apparently pure and basic as radio astronomy has had closer links with the defence and security establishment than its proponents might like to admit. Established after the second world war on a tide of war surplus electronics, it was only the timely appearance of Sputnik that saved Sir Bernard Lovell from disgrace after his overspending on his Jodrell Bank radio telescope. And surely academic radio astronomers occasionally wondered what their former students were doing in their jobs in Cheltenham? Eavesdropping on satellite phone calls doesn’t have the intellectual cachet of studying distant radio galaxies, but the technologies are rather similar .
The apparent freedom given to a few academic scientists in the post-second world war “golden age” was recompense for the perception that scientists had won the last war, and downpayment on their efforts to win the next one. It was a freedom for a few that coexisted with a much larger scale, and very explicitly directed, applied science effort in the national laboratories and defense establishments of the cold war warfare states . Nor was there much of a barrier between the pure world of academic science and the technical end of the military-industrial complex – on the contrary, there was regular traffic between the two worlds. The academic scientists benefitted from generous military funding of basic research, defense establishments gave their students jobs, and many of them could derive some personal benefit from summer-time consulting . Robert Wilson, director of Fermilab, legendarily replied to a Senator asking what his lab contributed to the defense of America, “Nothing, but it makes it worth defending”. This is an attractive answer to many scientists, but it was hugely disingenuous; without the cold war there would have been no Fermilab.
But can’t we hang on to his idea that science is an ornament to our culture, in the same way as high art is? Shouldn’t we support science with no thought of material benefit, for exactly the same reason as we support music and opera? There are two problems with this view. The first one is the very mundane and practical one, that the level of state support than the arts receive is about an order of magnitude less than the science budget (the Arts Council gets £450 million, the science budget is £5.8 billion), but science’s audiences are rather smaller. The second problem is more fundamental. How would it be decided what sort of science is funded? The analogy with arts is not encouraging; many would argue that the art that enjoys material success has served largely as a positional good that marks out superior class status. The disproportionate support received by the kinds of art favoured by prosperous metropolitans suggests that, even with state support, this remains true. William Blake created sublime and profound poetry and images, but his radical and difficult messages didn’t sell and he died poor. Meanwhile his contemporary Joshua Reynolds painted distinguished military men and well-dressed society wives; he received a knighthood and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. I don’t think science would necessarily be improved by being beholden to rich patrons; as Blake said following an unhappy experience with one such: “corporeal friends are spiritual enemies”.
Some people suggest that we should regard great scientific facilities like CERN as the cathedrals of the modern age. The spiritual allusion isn’t entirely misplaced; the early modern natural philosophy from which science emerged began as an explicitly religious enterprise, steeped in the Christian neo-Platonism of the time. The Christian part is much less prominent today than it was a couple of centuries ago, but the neo-Platonism still runs very deep . Many scientists find strong personal motivation in the majesty of a world-view that makes the universe comprehensible on the basis of universal mathematical principles. This works very well as driving force for the practitioners of science, but it means much less to the public at large. It’s a philosophy that appeals strongly to the celebrants but doesn’t leave a lot for the congregation to do.
Perhaps it’s more promising to go back to the other ingredient that went into the development of the modern scientific project – the new emphasis that its early theorist Francis Bacon put on practical application, in contrast to the goals of wisdom and personal fulfilment that were the traditional ends of natural philosophy. For Bacon, the purpose of the new experimental philosophy was “an improvement in man’s estate and an enlargement of his power over nature”. To this end new connections were made between natural philosophy and the hitherto lower status realms of craft knowledge, technology, and the practical mathematics of mechanics and astronomy. I don’t think anyone can doubt that the scientific project delivered on Bacon’s goal, and (aside from the gendered language) many, including me, would endorse it today. Science has unquestionably delivered enormous benefits through modern medicine, revolutions in agriculture and the possibility of material plenty.
But if I am focusing on the practical applications of science as its justification, am I not just returning to a justification by economic benefit? No, it’s only because of the supremacy of economic values in today’s world that we think in this way. Policy-makers find it hard to think of other ways than money of conceptualising and measuring benefit. If a spin-out company gets a new drug through clinical trials, we measure its success by the price the company is sold or floated for, rather than for the benefit it might bring to sufferers of the disease in question. Environmental scientists are forced into dubious quantifications of the value of “ecosystem services”. And climate science, whose long-term benefits may be incalculably large, encounters attacks on its very legitimacy from those who fear its implications that we may need to incur some short-term economic costs. We need to distinguish very clearly between the proposition that we should do science because it can bring benefits to humanity, and the proposition that such benefits can only be meaningfully measured in terms of a net present value; endorsing the former doesn’t mean you have to accept the latter.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some scientists have been naive about why academic science has in the past been supported ; not all scientists are able clearly to distinguish between their own motivations for doing science, and the motivations of those that fund it. I can’t help wondering whether some scientists have failed to come to terms with the end of the cold war. The cold war was an excellent time to be a scientist, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But I’m glad the cold war has ended. The cost to the environment, the abuse of human rights, the large-scale misapplication of the fruits of science, and the ever-present threat of nuclear catastrophe were too high a price to pay for the intellectual freedom and high status of a few elite scientists. The neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the world we now live in, despite the rhetorical enthusiasm for innovation and technology, is a much more difficult environment for science. The benefits of science are too long-term, too unpredictable, and too difficult to appropriate by any individual agent to fit comfortably in a world of short-term utility maximisation. My worry is that we are already seeing a slowing down of innovation in some of the areas where it matters most, as a result of the ascendancy of free-market fundamentalism. It’s natural and right for scientists to react badly to an environment in which the demands for their research to produce economic returns on ever-shorter timescales. But I also think it is right for society to expect science to contribute to the solutions we need for society’s big problems. We need to develop a political economy that will allow science to fulfil its potential.
1. See David Edgerton’s Warfare State – – for the UK, and for the USA, Audra Wolfe’s Competing with the Soviets: science, technology and the state in cold war America –
2. Cheltenham is the base of GCHQ, the UK’s signals intelligence organisation – the counterpart, and close collaborator, of the USA’s National Security Agency.
3. See, for example, the history of the JASON group, which brought together leading fundamental scientists, like Murray Gell-Mann, Leon Lederman, and Steven Weinberg, to solve classified problems for the US military.
4. For the natural philosophical origins of modern science, see Stephen Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture.
5. For a recent example, one might appreciate the irony of a leader of a recent campaign against the focus on “impact” in UK science policy having a job title which includes the name of the sponsoring pharmaceutical company.