Memorial Day and science policy…Part 2

This weekend we’re honoring those who gave their lives in military service to their country. Many made this sacrifice suddenly. Others have given their lives over a longer period – sometimes a full career dedicated to defending freedom, liberty, democracy.

The previous post hinted that (we) scientists might see a day coming when (we) they would have to think a bit more like soldiers. What do I mean? Here’s an attempt to show the parallel. A soldier, a sailor, an aviator learns a discipline. How to fire a rifle. How to care for that rifle – take it apart and clean it. Repair it. How to drive a tank, fire a cannon, fly a plane, operate a radar or a ship’s fire control system. The engineering behind all this gear. Tactics. Strategy. The enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s physical preparation. We could go on.

Scientists already operate on this plane: There’s a discipline intrinsic to science. The mathematics. Observation and experiment. Reproducing earlier results. Surveys and other methodology for the social sciences. Statistical analysis. This discipline of science is itself growing far more complex and demanding…and rapidly so.

Back to those soldiers. The important part, the part that makes a man or woman a soldier, as opposed to someone who just “knows soldierly stuff,” is the mental preparation. Thought along the lines of “Why am I in uniform? What is my larger purpose? The purpose of my unit? In combat, what will be my goal, and why?” The whole process of thought and contemplation that develops the commitment to obey orders, regardless of personal cost. The will to choose the larger good of the group over one’s own. And much more. In short, the soldier takes on a set of values and a code of conduct.

Scientists already function on this second plane as well. They seek to advance knowledge and understanding. In support of this goal they commit to rigorous test of their hypotheses and ideas before submitting papers for publication. They commit to acknowledgment and citation of prior work. They shun plagiarism and falsification of data. They make their self-criticism vigorous and unflinching. Not content with that, they submit their work to peer review by others before publication. Scientists have developed and subscribed to a set of values. And as the case for those soldiers, many of those values assign primacy to the sustained benefit of science as a whole over the short-term benefits of any individual scientist.

There’s a third level. Back to those soldiers. The best – and their leadership – address another set of questions: “What is the role of the military as a whole? When does military action cross the line between protection of freedom, liberty, democracy, and become projection of power, enlargement of territory, acquisition of resources for one nation while infringing on the rights of another? How can the military foster national security and geopolitical stability by preventing armed conflict, rather than just excelling at it? How does the military serve society, without ruling it?”

Those military leaders also get embroiled in other issues don’t they? What level of public funding for national security is enough? What are the options for balancing that funding across the different branches of the armed services – army, navy, air force, marines? Where and how should those resources be spent? What if international providers of goods and services are cheaper? Suppose we spend domestically? In which states?

Gets both philosophical and intensely political in a hurry, didn’t it?

It’s these bits that are really going to challenge scientists going forward: favoring the larger good of science over one’s personal aspirations and ambitions; and developing an understanding of science’s larger purposes and contributions to society – and the implications for science and scientists.

The fact is that for the past sixty years, U.S. scientists have enjoyed a unique social contract with the rest of America. In essence, scientists have said, “give us lots of money, don’t ask too many questions, and some day you’ll be glad you did.” Remarkably, the bargain has proved a good one for both scientists and society. With only 4% of the world’s population, America enjoys the world’s largest economy in large part because of its extraordinary pace of innovation over the six decades.

However, that social contract/policy for science is coming under scrutiny. One recent example? A report on the National Science Foundation put out by the office of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  Dan Sarewitz comments in a post on Roger Pielke Jr.’s Blog.

Both the report and the commentary make worthwhile reading. This is not because either the report or the commentary represents the final word. The Coburn report has several shortcomings, which Dan points out for us – but Dan himself ends with a question, not a conclusion. Rather (since we’re using military metaphors here), consider each an opening salvo: something like the “shots heard round the world” at Lexington or the fighting at Fort Sumter that triggered the Civil War.

Tomorrow, the specifics.

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One Response to Memorial Day and science policy…Part 2

  1. Pingback: Memorial Day and science policy…Part 3. | Living on the Real World

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