The advent of a methodical, experimental, organized, publically funded and honored, and technologically oriented science has introduced deep transformations in politics. Where this science has been institutionalized and its fruits available— in Europe, North America, Australia, and much of Asia—it has enabled wealth and leisure, as well as generally improved living conditions. Indeed, the tremendous inequality in living conditions and military might between nations where this science and its fruits are known, and those where they are unknown, is arguably the basis for classifying the world into developed, developing, and underdeveloped countries. In large part because of its practical efficacy, the scientific account of nature that underlies this power has tended to spread along with its technological fruits, replacing or forcing the modification of traditional beliefs about the nonhuman whole, and thus about humanity, law, and duty.
Moreover, in progressively expanding human power over nature and thus the limits of possible action, technological science has the capacity to change expectations of the state and the conduct of politics. Thus, while commonly seen simply as an instrument of those who develop and use it, technological science also can effect change in people’s beliefs and alter their relationship to each other and to their political community. Political science has been slow to take account of this dynamic and dialectical relationship between politics and technological science, but the prominence of pressing policy questions involving science and technology have forced it onto the agenda of all branches of the discipline.
- Classical Criticisms of Art and Science
- The Baconian Revolution to the Bomb
- After the Bomb: Policy for Science and Technology
- After the Bomb: Science and Technology for Policy
Classical Criticisms of Art and Science
In Europe, where modern technological science emerged, however, the inquiry to uncover the unchanging character of the nonhuman whole (or nature), which was originally called physiology or philosophy, and the practical and productive arts, the totality of which we now call technology, were originally distinct enterprises, both of which were viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, from the vantage point of politics or the health of the political community. In the Hebrew Bible, the questionable nature of the arts is indicated by their origin—the founders of metallurgy, tools, and instruments come from the cursed descendants of Cain—and shows itself in the tension between the arts and law or man’s duty to God. Thus, in the Babel story, the invention of the art of masonry tempts man to undertake the prideful project of making a name for himself through the building of a united and universal city.
As for science, Plato has preserved for us the anecdote of Thales, who, while stargazing, fell into a well, at which sight a witty Thracian maid quipped that Thales was so eager to know the heavens that he forgot the things at his feet. Sharper still is Aristophanes’ critique of the scientific enterprise in his comedy Clouds, where a buffoonish Socrates is shown engaged in a variety of inane inquiries into nature, apparently oblivious or indifferent to Athens’ plight in the Peloponnesian war, and complicit in the corruption of the youth of Athens, encouraging doubt about the being of the gods of the city and thus undermining the authority of its laws. The single-minded quest for the truth about nature leads to an irresponsible and dangerous forgetfulness about politics and the demands of practical life.
The founders of political philosophy and political science recognize the questionable nature of the philosopher’s place in the community and share the skepticism about the arts, if albeit for different reasons. Both in Plato’s Republic and his Laws, philosophy is restricted to a very select class of individuals. Regarding the arts, in his Politics, Aristotle directly considers a proposal, attributed to Hippodamus, to encourage useful innovation and argues against it on the grounds that it will encourage innovation in law, which is dangerous. Though he later acknowledges the city’s need to attend to developments in the military arts in particular, lest its rivals become too powerful, even this recognition does not persuade the philosopher to adopt a general policy of encouraging innovation.
Nor was the marriage of science and the arts simply unknown to the ancients, as the wondrous machines of Hero of Alexandria and Plutarch’s portrait of Archimedes indicate, but these examples make clear the separation and rank order of importance assigned to the arts on the one hand and science or philosophy on the other. Simplifying and generalizing, we can say that while the usefulness, even the necessity, of pursuing certain avenues of technological innovation, particularly in the military arts, was recognized and accepted, the systematic encouragement of scientific and technical innovation was never pursued, both out of fear of the revolutionary potential of all innovation and an aristocratic scorn for concern with means and the merely necessary. Science or philosophy, insisting on its essentially theoretical character, is accepted or rejected by the political community as a leisure activity, perhaps beautiful, but effectively useless.
The Baconian Revolution to the Bomb
A twofold transformation in this relationship is thus the precondition of the politically institutionalized technological science with which we are familiar. Science must rescind or at least qualify its essentially theoretical character, show itself to be practically useful, and the political skepticism toward innovation must be overcome. With respect to the former of these, many scholars argue that late medieval Christianity played a crucial part, forcing a qualification of the classical defense of science or philosophy and breaking down the aristocratic ethos and its high-minded contempt for the productive arts. Thus in the medieval period one sees a flowering of technical innovation and figures like Roger Bacon, monk, philosopher, and mechanic.
The first systematic effort to think through and work for the unification of natural philosophy, or science, and the arts, with a view to fundamentally resetting the relationship of natural philosophy, or science, and politics occurs in the thought of Englishman Francis Bacon around the turn of the seventeenth century. Bacon’s project was twofold: to provide the foundational argument for a methodical, experimental, and practically oriented science, which as such, would yield works and not mere words or understanding; and second, to advocate the institutionalization of this science. Unlike classical science, the new natural science was a large and collaborative venture, therefore requiring not only tolerance or freedom, but funding, honor, and support. In exchange for these, Bacon and his successors promise to the state useful knowledge and extraordinary new powers. In essentials, the terms of this “social contract between science and society” remain the same in the early twenty-first century. The guiding vision for this project can be glimpsed in Bacon’s New Atlantis, which tells of the discovery by a ship of Europeans of the utopian island of Bensalem, where institutionalized science contributes to securing maximum political happiness.
Bacon’s writings and the New Atlantis in particular were of crucial importance to the founding of the Royal Society and so to the great age of English science that culminated in Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia. The Royal Society is among the first scientific establishments supported not only out of aristocratic largess, but for the goods that it promises to generate. Anglo Irish satirist Jonathan Swift produced a hilarious lampooning of the society and its science in the third voyage of Gulliver’s Travels, which suggests the society’s early failure to make good on this promise but may be taken also as an implicit acknowledgment of its growing prominence.
By the late eighteenth century, Bacon and French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes were revered or condemned as the architects of the “scientific” aspect of the Enlightenment project to rationalize and meliorate human life. Taken together, science, liberal government, and commerce would bring comfort and prosperity, as well as chase religion into the private realm, freeing politics from its authority. This Enlightenment project of science, technology, and a new kind of politics in the service of human liberty is clearly visible in the patent clause of the U.S. Constitution, empowering Congress, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Over the course of the nineteenth century, scientific and technological progress proceeded at a remarkable pace in Europe and the United States. While the extent to which scientific inquiry is prerequisite to technological development remains somewhat controversial, both in this period and in general, in some clear and famous cases (the lightning rod and the telegraph, for instance), developments in science clearly precede and make possible important technological innovations. Moreover, this linear model, as it is sometimes called, was surely the prevailing understanding of the relationship between science and technology through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Basic or pure science precedes and makes possible applied science and technology.
During the nineteenth century, the university became the primary home of the scientist (a label coined in the 1830s and controversial through the end of the nineteenth century), while applied science and engineering found a home in the corporation. Outside of agriculture, the geological and oceanic surveys, and some limited ventures in the realm of public health, however, the state kept or was kept at a distance from both basic science and engineering.
This distance of the state from science and engineering was decisively changed by the two world wars. The advent and use of chemical weapons in the First World War (1914– 1918) is among the first clear indications of a new relationship of interdependence between technological science and the state; science was enlisted and mobilized to serve the ends of the state, a movement that culminated with the development of the atomic bomb. No event in the history of modern natural science makes so clear its potentially decisive practical power; no event so immediately alters its relationship to politics. Many saw (and see) the advent of the bomb and the possibility of nuclear annihilation as disclosing the dangerous hubris of the Baconian project to master nature, as well as confirming the concerns of critics of technology from Rousseau on. But for those in power, faced with deciding what is to be done, the main question henceforth was how this science can best be harnessed and directed to the benefit of the state and humanity generally. And so, following the Second World War (1939–1945), every industrialized nation undertook a programmatic reevaluation of their capacities for scientific and technological innovation. Perhaps the most famous and influential of these reports was Vannevar Bush’s “Science—The Endless Frontier.” With the development of “the bomb” a number of essential features of the relationship between modern science and politics are brought to the fore and with them, questions and controversies that remain unresolved to this day. They are customarily, if imperfectly, categorized as matters of policy for science and technology and of science and technology for policy.
After the Bomb: Policy for Science and Technology
To begin with the crudest and most obvious considerations, the development of the bomb reveals the importance, if not the necessity of, funding science, even or perhaps especially the most abstract branches of science. Estimates vary, but according to Don K. Price (1962), at the turn of the twentieth century, total federal support for research and development (R&D) in the United States was on the order of ten million dollars; by 1930 it was still less than one hundred million dollars, and by the end of the Second World War, one billion dollars. According to the National Science Foundation report for fiscal year 2008, federal R&D support totaled 116 billion dollars. Such huge investment, however, gives rise to controversy. What is the role of the state as opposed to industry in funding research, and how much of a say does the funding public get in how its money is distributed? The prevailing understanding of the workings of science suggests that state funding is necessary, particularly for capital-intensive projects and early-stage research and that no-strings-attached funding distributed by scientists with a view to the scientific merits of proposed inquiries is the surest path to progress.
Still, the public justification of funding for science is primarily in terms of practical use or consequence. Even apparent exceptions—space exploration and supercolliders—are undertaken for the global prestige or recognition, as symbols of preeminence calculated to have political effect. When governments are forced to choose between constructing a new supercollider and the bio medically relevant human genome project, the project with the clearer practical benefit is likely to prevail. Because public benefit remains the only legitimate ground for public funding, scientists have an interest in encouraging belief in the fruitfulness of basic research. As Daniel Greenberg (1999) has pointed out, from a scientist’s point of view, there is scarcely any problem facing the nation to which the answer is not more funding for science.
A related question is the relative efficacy of directed versus undirected scientific research. Given that the public funds science largely, though perhaps not exclusively, with a view to the technological benefits it receives from the science, it has an interest in maximizing its investment. Again, the case of the bomb is a helpful entry to the problem. Many, including Vannevar Bush (1960), interpret the development of the bomb as a confirmation of the importance of undirected funding of basic science. Both because science itself resists being managed from without and because the ultimate implications or consequences of a particular line of research cannot be predicted in advance, but those consequences are undeniably of great consequence, the state must fund generously and broadly, turning over authority for distributing the funding to the scientists themselves, the only ones in a position to know what to do with it.
On the other hand, the bomb was the outcome of the most aggressive project of government-directed research in human history, the Manhattan Project. It can be plausibly argued that, far from demonstrating the utility of basic research, the bomb is proof of the fruitfulness, even the necessity, of direct government supervision and guidance of research. Indeed, the Manhattan Project and the moon landing have become proverbial examples of what focused effort and big spending can accomplish. Daniel Sarewitz (1996) has provocatively and persuasively argued in favor of abandoning the “myths” of the infinite benefit of unfettered research, which he sees as obstacles to clear thinking about policy for science and technology.
The bomb makes clear that scientific and technical talent and ability are vital resources to be jealously guarded and cultivated. The massive exodus of theoretical physicists from Nazi Germany was a crucial factor in the success of the Manhattan Project and the health of physics in the United States after the war. Similarly, in the aftermath of the launch of Sputnik, there was a sudden concern about whether the United States was training enough scientists and engineers. At the same time, because there is no necessary connection between being a good scientist and being a good citizen, states become concerned about scientists sharing secrets, spying, and defecting. The newly discovered dependence of the state on the integrity and devotion of its scientists exposes those scientists to heightened scrutiny, which is in tension with the freedom from oversight and political interference taken to be crucial to scientific progress.
The internationalism of the scientific community is thus a factor in policy for science. On the one hand, the existence of a meaningful international community of scientists makes possible action on a global level, as suggested by the cases of nuclear testing and arms control during the cold war and the current efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On the other hand, the transnational character of science opens the possibility of scientists simply moving from one state to another to avoid justifiable regulation or supervision and thus stands in the way both of state-level as well as global policy for science and technology.
Another uncontroversial implication of the development of the atomic bomb is the need for supervision and regulation of certain potentially dangerous or morally questionable avenues of scientific and technological development. But by whom, and according to what criteria? Again, on the one hand, only the technically and scientifically expert are competent to distinguish real dangers or concerns from the merely fanciful, but on the other hand, how can interested parties be trusted with judgment in their own case? Moreover, certain of the most uncontroversial limits to scientific and technological research—the prohibition of experimentation on unwitting human subjects, for instance—have nothing to do with scientific expertise and indeed rest on bases external to the science itself. Here, as with the case of funding, the scientific impulse seems clearly in tension with the demand for regulation. No consensus has emerged on how such disputes should be resolved and policy made, as the ongoing debate about the funding and regulation of research on human embryonic stem cells indicates. This picture is further complicated when looked at comparatively, for particular states with distinct histories handle the same policy questions very differently, raising the question of which approach is best. To generalize, while the need has been clear for more than half a century, developing institutions, national or international, capable of regulating science and technology remains very much a work in progress, and a dispositional openness to technological innovation leads to the acceptance of an increasingly problematic “wait and see” approach to regulation.
After the Bomb: Science and Technology for Policy
The second half of the twentieth century also sees the proliferation of science and technology in policy. With the advent of an evolutionary view of nature and the corollary notion of species interdependence, humanity is forced to look at choices and actions in terms of potential consequences for nature as a whole and even the future of nature as a whole. As Hans Jonas observed (1984), practice has become more far-reaching and total than ever before. The discovery of the environment as an object of concern, together with the explosion of new products and processes with potential impacts on human health to consider, has the consequence that science-and-technology expertise and advice is suddenly indispensable to policy making. Yet, as this expertise involves the prediction of future consequences in extraordinarily complex systems, the uncertainty of such advice seems unavoidable. Moreover, even in the absence of deep uncertainty, scientific expertise seldom, if ever, compels a particular political choice. Policy makers and citizens turn to experts, but they tend to ask more of experts than they can deliver.
This problem has two grave consequences: the politicization of science and technocracy. The politicization of science names the use of science to rhetorically defend or rationalize a policy choice and the involvement of scientists in the political process such that they come to been seen as partisans rather than the disinterested seekers they need to be to justify appealing to their authority. Technocracy names the capture of decision-making authority by the technically and scientifically expert and there with a loss of democratic self-government. It has become customary to speak of the task of maintaining the separation between science and politics requisite to avoiding these twin dangers as “boundary-work,” though more recent studies of science and technology in policy have tended to show that successfully enacting policy often entails blurring and crossing these boundaries; for instance, when scientific advisors sympathetic to the position of regulators tailor their recommendations accordingly. Thus, what works and what accords with our opinions of the proper relationship between science and policy appear to be at odds, and, as Peter Weingart has observed (1999), despite widespread awareness of this situation, the pattern tends to repeat itself.
Simultaneously, states turn to innovators and technicians to help with the management of problems and dangers. There are limits, however, to the capacity of technology to solve the problems generated by science and technology. Proliferation and testing of nuclear weapons continues despite improvements in detection. Recycling does not undo damage done by the original production and use. Worse yet, the belief or hope in the possibility of innovating problems away discourages undertaking the more difficult effort of making burdensome regulatory policy.
Finally, the introduction of science and technology to existing political institutions often can give rise to further problems and complications. This challenge is perhaps clearest in considering science-and-technology issues in the legal system, where decisions about what constitutes sound science must be made by nonscientists and where the capacities of technological innovations (e.g., DNA testing or MRI scans) must be assessed and judged by nontechnicians. Again here the tension between democratic norms and science-and-technology expertise strain our institutions, often forcing their modification.
The incorporation of the findings of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science and technology into political science remains a work in progress, and science-and-technology policy remains a relatively underdeveloped subfield despite the growing importance and centrality of policy questions involving science and technology at both the national and international levels. What is clear is that the relationship between science, technology, and politics is a dynamic one, with each element exerting influence on the other two, and that this relationship cannot be taken for granted or presumed to function automatically for the good. Its management is thus a task, a particularly important task, of politics and a fruitful area of study for political science.
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