How Society Makes Science Happen
History: For as long as there have been societies with complex divisions of labor, there have been scholars who studied the natural world - 'scientists' in the broadest sense of the word. How could they afford to do their work and still feed themselves? Two means:
- Independent wealth: Rich people can do what they like with their time. Examples:
- Patronage: Support of wealthy individuals, princes, religious organizations, universities. EG:
Note: scholars and patrons weren't necessarily interested in the same result: Archimedes was mostly interested in (and remembered for) "pure" research into mathematics. Hiero loved his inventions and military gadgets.
- Archimedes 287-212 BC: Mathematician and inventor in Syracuse. Protege of King Hiero of Syracuse. Developed formulae for areas and volumes of geometric shapes, discovered primciple of displacement, Invented effective fortifications, siege engines, and weapons.
- Roger Bacon: (1214 - 1294) Mathematician. Established connection between geometry and optics. First a lecturer at Oxford, later a Franciscan monk.
- Johannes Kepler: 1571 - 1630: Mathematician and astronomer. Developed three laws of planetary motion. Taught in Lutheran Stiftschule at Graz. Later protege of Tycho Brahe. Eventually succeeded Brahe as Imperial Mathematician at Prague. Died destitute.
- Isaac Newton: (1643 - 1727): Coinventor of calculus, research in physics, astronomy, and optics. University instructor (Held Lucasian chair at Cambridge) Later master of the Royal Mint.
Echos of the preindustrial system can bee seen today. We still have:
- A few wealthy people who fund their own research
- A system of patronage that includes hiring scientists to teach but also pursue research at universities. BUT, that system is much bigger, more complex, and systematically organized than before.
BUT there have been some big innovations. Today, we see:
- Scientific researchers who are salaried employees of the government.
- Scientific researchers who are salaried employees of private commercial firms.
- Researchers who are hybrids - employed by private firms or universities but funded by government or private philanthropic agencies.
Let's briefly describe these:
First - remember that research can be anything from primary (i.e. purely intellectual) to application-oriented.
Direct Gov't research: We'll speak of the US federal gov't, but could be talking about many state or foreign governments. Typically, the fed conducts research that is either too vital. too security sensative, or too expensive to leave to anyone else.
- The object has some sensative national security component or is of some other vital public interest. E.G. the Manhattan Project.
- The equipment, staff, and infrastructure are simply beyond the reach of non-governmental agencies - E.G. NASA and Project Apollo. Brookhaven National Labs and high energy particle physics.
- Requires an investment of R & D that others can't afford to make.
- Is essential to public health and safety - E.G. The work of the Centers for Disease Control (disease prevention), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Assessing meteorological threats to property, commerce)
- Is aimed at the inventorying of public assets. E.G. - The U S Geological Survey (identification of national mineral, water, and fossil fuel resources.)
- In a few cases, the gov't has assembled the best and most enthusiastic minds for a special project (Manhattan, Apollo) but sometimes, governmental programs deal with issues that other researchers don't care as much about.
Private commercial research labs: Pursue all levels of research in which there's a reasonable expectation of an eventual commercial application. Remember, it's possible to patent a new molecule, information processing algorithm, or other procedure. Areas in which we see considerable commercial interest at all levels include:
Commercial firms are limited by their nature to investigating things that promise financial payback and that can be studied without too huge an outlay of capital.
The Hybrids: Government funded private research. Most researchers that receive government financial support aren't gov't employees. Rather, they are employees of private or state institutions (educational or commercial) who receive gov't grants. This is the modern version of old-fashioned patronage. Typically, funds are distributed by grants awarded by independent governmental granting agencies.
Note, grant applications are evaluated by qualified members of the profession, not by bureaucrats, and the granting process for specific divisions is overseen by members of the scientific community who occupy rotating posts. Thus, but for the general buget allocation, the gov't has little control over what gets funded.
An aside: The Smithsonian Institution was originally conceived to have this function, as well, but ended up becoming a national museum.
There are similar private granting agencies. These may be administered by universitites (E.G. the Geology Foundation of the University of Texas) and private agencies. (E.G.: The MacArthur Foundation. The Keck Foundation)
Of course, a researcher can apply for grants from many agencies, and it's not uncommon for research to have many sponsors. Whatever their affiliations granting agencies share important similarities:
Because of their independence and access to government funds, granting agencies tend to dominate scientific research in democratic societies. In totalitarian societies such as the former Soviet Union, governmantal agencies play a much bigger role.
- Granting agencies exploit the enthusiasm and expertise of researchers that come to them for support, so they tend to fund high-quality projects in narrow fields of research. (Contrast to some direct government research.)
- They can fund research with no forseeable commercial or national security/health implications.
- They can't direct research the way either the feds or private industry can, because they can't tell people what kind of grant applications to write.
- They don't have bottomless pockets. Typically, a 1 million dollar grant from NSF in evolutionary science and geology would be considered large.