From Where does Scientism Come?

… scientists push a narrative that the people in power clearly, and thankfully, don’t believe.” [discussion about the value of basic vs. applied science] “are not really about changing funding patterns. They’re more about changing scientists’ priorities and the culture of academia.
I largely agree with that. A key issue here is that “science” is often understood differently by those who pay for it and those who do it.
From the point of view of those who pay for it, the primary aim of funding basic scientific research in academia is to provide education and training. Scientific research in academic settings is mainly a way of training the next generation of researchers needed by industry. Replenishing the supply of academics will use up only a small proportion of academically trained researchers. Using universities to train researchers for industry is effectively an outsourcing of researcher training and is a good solution only so long as it’s more cost effective than each individual business running its own researcher training programs. Focusing the research on ‘basic’ science keeps the training neutral, not biased to the specific needs of one employer over another.
In academia itself, the view persists that the primary aim of academia is to provide a protected environment in which academic scientists can carry out research in basic science (or, more accurately, oversee low-paid postgrads and post-docs carrying out research). Scientific education, as I know it anyway (UK; biomedical), does little to dispel that and some private sector grant funding organizations (e.g. HHMI in the US, Wellcome Trust in UK) positively encourage it by providing funding for specific scientists rather than projects. In fact, it may be surprising how much this attitude survives even among scientists employed in industry.
The process of becoming a scientist involves not only the accumulation of specialist knowledge and technical skills, but also induction into a scientistic culture to which the PhD is a rite of initiation. Scientists are encouraged to see themselves as a professional elite, by which I mean that the cultural codes around someone being identified as a “scientist” direct people to evaluate that person on that scientistic basis rather than on the basis of that individual’s personal characteristics as evident right there and then.
Advertisements

3 thoughts on “From Where does Scientism Come?

  1. Hey Peter. Thanks again for your comment, and for elaborating here. I really like your analysis that basic research allows you to train generic scientists without favoring one industry over the other. But I think that even within basic research, funding decisions will tend to favor certain industries. Basic bioscience research helps pharmaceuticals more than semiconductors, e.g. I’m also not sure that basic research is unique w.r.t. training. I bet phd electrical engineers also have skills that can be widely used in other industries.

    Nevertheless, thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Praj, All your points are good ones. No doubt, much that goes in the name of basic research is chosen and pursued with some extrascientific agenda in mind and equally no doubt much of the training of engineers or other applied scientists has value in areas other than the vocation that the training is expressly intended to support.
    My perspective (which this blog is here to develop) is to look at what value there is in basic science research in general or as an ideal. I’m trying to suggest that the abstract ideas developed through basic science theorizing provide a supply of ‘multiuse parts’ that can be readily mixed and matched into innovatory applications.

  3. Praj, All your points are good ones. No doubt, much that goes in the name of basic research is chosen and pursued with some extrascientific agenda in mind and equally no doubt much of the training of engineers or other applied scientists has value in areas other than the vocation that the training is expressly intended to support.
    My perspective (which this blog is here to develop) is to look at what value there is in basic science research in general or as an ideal. I’m trying to suggest that the abstract ideas developed through basic science theorizing provide a supply of ‘multiuse parts’ that can be readily mixed and matched into innovatory applications.

Add a Comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s