Scientists and society: the social contract redux.

Some months ago, the folks at AGU were kind enough to invite me to write an opinion for, reflecting on the social contract connecting scientists with the society we serve. The piece was posted Tuesday, having finally cleared a thorough vetting process that included peer review, followed by extensive editing and reformatting. Thanks to all concerned for that extra care and attention; the revisions made for a better product.

One idea expressed was that we would do well to move beyond the post-World-War-II policy of “curiosity-driven research.” We might do better to channel the 17th-century natural philosopher Francis Bacon, and “seek knowledge for the benefit of life,” in a spirit of selfless love (or, in his vernacular, “charity”).

Something like this is expected of adolescents as they make they way into adulthood. Case in point: a close colleague has a brilliant son who is now finishing college. The son has made a splash over the past few years putting together a computer-controlled sound-and-light show for his major university to mark the Christmas holidays. The event has been something to behold, been featured on YouTube, etc.. But few expect that son to make a career of this. Instead he’s more likely to work at the interface of biotechnology and engineering, building on his summer internships along these latter lines… and making the world not just a more entertaining place but a truly better one, for all of us, for decades to come (no pressure, young man!).

Science itself is making a similar shift as it matures. Looking back over the past four million years, we’d say that for virtually all that time, S&T has amounted to little more than a sideshow in human affairs. However, over the last two thousand years, and especially over the past century or so, S&T has begun to matter. It is today the proximate determinant of humanity’s prospects and fortunes. We look to scientists to make all manner of incremental additions to the store of knowledge and to apply such new understanding to improve our lives.

But we’re also earnestly hoping (or perhaps praying? or perhaps all-too-complacently trusting?) for far more, in two respects. First, we expect scientists to deliver a cornucopia of substantial – more properly, transcendent – global economic opportunities. Second, we count on them to identify existential threats to the planet and life on it from a long way off (whether in space or time, and defined as “in time to avert disaster”), and offer any needed coping strategies.

So far so good, so long as we don’t look too closely. Thanks to science, we’ve harnessed a range of energy sources; tamed electricity; extended life, and the quality of that life; replaced human physical limits and frailty with the power of machines; morphed our mobility, and through IT have generated a new virtual universe of information and started to mine its vast potential (as in the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome). Turning to risk management: scientists toil away identifying new means for feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards. We keep an eye peeled for asteroids. We monitor disease outbreaks.

This comprehension and a corresponding sense of urgency need to underpin every aspect of human endeavor. When it comes to risk management we can’t tolerate blind spots or laggard response. When it comes to opportunities we must seize the day. Everything hinges on the pace of innovation and its application.

But we don’t normally see this played out at the broadest level. Instead we see particular conversations on pieces of the puzzle. Here’s a recent example: what’s been identified as the battle brewing over NASA priorities. Julian Hattem reports it this way in the

“A battle of interplanetary proportions is brewing on Capitol Hill.

It’s not “Star Wars,” but partisan lines are quickly being drawn in a budget battle over the future of NASA, which could have a long-term impact on the space agency’s ability to explore the deepest corners of space as well as the ground beneath our feet.

On one side are Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of taking its eye off the ball by funneling too much money into research about the planet Earth, rather than focusing on distant worlds and stars.

On the other, Democrats argue that the administration’s plan is critical to harness the best of NASA’s talents, protect our planet and consistent with the agency’s wide-ranging mission…”

The disputants here seem to see space research as a zero-sum game, and “study of the Earth” as somehow distinct and in opposition to the “study of distant worlds and stars.” The reality is something different. Neither Earth science nor planetary science can progress in isolation. Earth is the only planet presenting us opportunity to “ground-truth” observations we make from space. Our work of our remote probes must be strongly rooted in constant, diligent experiment and study closer to home. In the same way, study of other planets provides our only chance to assess the robustness of geoscience. How else can we reduce the risk that our conceptual and computer models of our world only seem to work – that in reality they’re merely empirically tuned to mimic conditions here?

We urgently need to make progress across the whole of space science and technology.

To repeat: how successful will we be at “feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards?” The answer lies in the pace of innovation and its application.

“Application” is the key bottleneck here.

For example, remember: global change is not a slow-onset problem. Global change is rapid-onset, compared with the time required for seven billion people to agree upon what to do about it.

With respect to all these matters, including our policies for support of observations from space, building weather-readiness at a community level worldwide, and much more, the question to be answered (trumping budget considerations and all else) is

“What must we do to learn what we need to know in time?”

Imbedded there is a question from social science, (although social science provides us so much more):

“How much time do we need?”

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8 Responses to Scientists and society: the social contract redux.

  1. Bill:-

    Great article, and great post!

    One of the potential benefits of Global Graying is that those of us who are self-funded (as my wife continually reminds me!) and experienced seasoned (ahem) professionals are transforming ourselves into something like the Natural Philosophers of the Age of Reason. Like value-driven financial investors, we continue to invest our time in trying to unravel the secrets of the world around us, but choose to do so in those directions that may have value to the greater society.

    This value-driven temporal investing still slakes our curiosity-driven thirst for knowledge but also allows us to drink headier brews and to better understand not only physical phenomena but the social trends that may result. Too few of the Young have time for Wisdom; they are consumed by finding knowledge. Those of us with the time and knowledge owe it to our children and grandchildren to share the fruit of our temporal investments – our Wisdom – with them. And in these pieces, you have done that well.

  2. srp says:

    Your post brings up a number of thoughts:

    1. It probably isn’t true that technological progress must follow pure science. The opposite is often the case as historians of science and technology have shown repeatedly. In fact, Bacon in the New Organon pointed out that in the centuries of history to the time of his writing, the philosophers (natural and otherwise) had gone in circles and the only area where progress could be discerned was the work of the mechanics. Machines and devices had improved and he used that progress as a model for his new science. Of course there are many cases, especially as we move closer to the present, where scientific understanding has played a crucial role in technological progress, but that relationship is not axiomatic.

    2. One would probably want an ecology of research endeavors that includes both curiosity-driven science and top-down programmatic research. The partisans of basic research correctly point to a glorious history of important discoveries coming from people “playing around” with ideas in an environment where they were not pressured full-time to deliver specific results on a timetable. (In fact, one reasonable criticism of today’s grant system for supposedly “curiosity-driven” small science is that it excessively commits researchers to deliver specific, preordained results rather than discover new things they weren’t originally thinking of.)

    3. The natural feedback loops, or checks and balances, or Invisible Hand incentives (pick your metaphor based on your preferred reference field) that make pure science as an institution flourish, despite the fallible nature of scientists, depend upon scientists being motivated primarily by either a) the pleasure of discovery itself or more importantly b) the status among a community of discovery-seekers accruing that accrues to discovery. All the sticky real-world tradeoffs that can’t be specified in advance, e.g. when to throw out some of your data because it is lower quality or how much detail about your procedure to disclose in a publication, tend to get chosen by investigators in a way that maximizes the social rate of discovery when those investigators are motivated by a) and especially b). Since each scientist wants his work to be recognized and cited by others who are themselves pursuing discoveries, he has an incentive to tune these tradeoffs in a way that will make his work seem useful to other investigators.

    None of that applies to scientists who are instead seeking to advance policy goals in a political context or to please outside funders or political leaders. The unspecifiable-in-advance but unavoidable tradeoffs on data handling, disclosure, revisiting basic assumptions versus building on them, etc., get made with an eye toward objectives other than maximizing the rate of discovery. So then science needs a bunch of auxiliary but highly imperfect institutions to try to collectively compensate for this incentive gap at the individual level–grant panels and committees and review boards and fraud police and “science-policy” mavens and the rest of the meta-scientific overhead that now occupies so much of scientists’ time.

    • William Hooke says:

      GREAT comment.

      1. Couldn’t agree more with your first point.
      Years ago, when I was a newly-minted Ph.D., I came across a DoD report entitled Project Hindsight. There’s sketchy information on it here:

      What I remember (possibly erroneously) was that embedded in its examination of the payoffs from different R&D was how much “basic” science had profited from application versus the other way around. Idea has stuck with me ever since, and of course these days a number of scholars have questioned the so-called linear model of science -> applied science -> application and pointed out the importance of nonlinearity, feedbacks. Another reason for scientists to be grateful for public support versus feeling entitled.

      2. Your second point is spot-on as well. Innovation is so important to the world’s future, and blind spots in our knowledge/awareness pose such a threat, that our main priority should be ensuring the diversity of scientific exploration and multiple infrastructures supporting it versus trying to “contain costs” and find a single most fruitful path. We’re seriously underinvesting in the understanding we need to realize opportunities for and avoid threats to the human race and all other life.

      3. And these two points also lead to your third as the night the day. Here, though, I have a question for you. You speak to “Since each scientist wants his work to be recognized and cited by others who are themselves pursuing discoveries, he has an incentive to tune these tradeoffs in a way that will make his work seem useful to other investigators.”

      This is certainly natural enough, but since we’re flawed human beings it’s this desire to be cited and recognized that over time motivates some to take shortcuts, to try to gain those citations and recognition through means that are more political than scientific, to make all of Bacon’s well-named “inferior goals” become the main object of our work. The Bacon quote seems to suggest that we’ll only be able to sustain our science if we can individually put aside our selfish ambitions in favor of something nobler. This is uncomfortable for most of us. We’d prefer to see ourselves as somehow supernaturally and uniquely gifted (relative to other professions such as law or — blush! — politics) with objectivity and high-mindedness. Instead Bacon (who was no saint himself) confronts us with goals we can’t achieve on our own (unselfish love and desire for the benefit of others) and forces us to acknowledge there are forces at work outside those that are as yet readily explained by, say, physics.

      • srp says:

        Thanks for your feedback.

        On your last point, there’s a more-complex explanation involved. The analogy I prefer is to the metaphor of a market, where myopically selfish people serve others as a means to their own enrichment. In the short run, a seller can get away with cheating in various ways, but the ultimate check on this sort of behavior is competition–those who provide an actual better deal end up driving the cheaters to the margins of the market. (There are exceptions and degrees of this, of course–it depends on contextual factors such as whether repeat business and reputation are important, which is why “tourist traps” are notorious especially in the pre-Internet age when travelers couldn’t use Yelp or Zagat on a mobile phone.)

        So when the “buyers” of your science intend to build on it to try to make their own discoveries, if you pass off bad or less-than-useful results in your publications, then reality will intrude and the “buyers” will remember this next time and may talk to each other or even get mad and decide to publish something to warn the rest of the community (another way of garnering status, by the way). That’s the key reason why you need that discovery/status for discovery motivation pervading the community–it means that the best-qualified judges of your work are also the most motivated to judge it accurately (because they need to make use of it) and have the most power to reward you (because their esteem, citation, etc.) is what matters to you. That trifecta of feedback is why even slippery operators or ambitious exaggerators will tend to behave more “scientifically” than their imperfect characters might suggest.

        • William Hooke says:

          The market analogy is a great one. The U.S. Constitution was also set up toward the same end. The authors of the Federalist papers made it clear their view was that we all act in self interest, and that the role of legal frameworks was/is to ensure that when we all individually do that, that we in aggregate serve the common good.

          In the event, of course, it turns out that no markets are ever perfectly competitive, and no policies are immune to a variety of corruptions and gaming practices. The scientific market and the U.S. Constitution have held up better over many years than most such arrangements, but they still work best and endure longest when you and I, and all participants, police ourselves, shoulder responsibility, aspire through whatever means we can muster to do the right thing… as opposed to taking shortcuts large and small to rejigger the rules in our favor.

          So… always a work in progress.

        • srp says:

          Yes, most institutions work best when they aren’t pushed to the limit in controlling lack of virtue, even if they have evolved or were designed to accommodate self-interest. My concern is that the institutions of science have shifted in such a way as to require more virtue than they did previously, i.e. private incentives to be virtuous (as I described above) used to be more aligned with the public interest than they are now. Shading a result or its presentation to make it more conducive to an external policy agenda, for example, is more likely to be rewarded now than it used to be.

          • William H. Hooke says:

            truly well said.

            btw, should you ever wish to see these or other of your thoughts attain greater prominence/ visibility, you’re more than welcome to contribute a guest post, as I’ve invited people to do from the beginning (see “about” on the LOTRW homepage).

            A handful of people have accepted this invitation, some multiple times. I moderate the submissions but to date have been able to post the submissions promptly and without edits, so that your thoughts would be unfiltered.

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