I’ve just read Praj’s post “Scientists as a special interest” in which he considers the question asked by Matthew Nisbet: “as a matter of social responsibility, do scientists have an obligation to accept that reductions in scientific spending are necessary to preserve social programs?”
Surely, as long as we see this question as one of priority of science over social programs or vice versa, we’re on the path straight back to the “egghead” vs. “anti-intellectual” brickbats that have a lot to do with selling newspapers (or online attention) and very little to do with intelligent discussion. The arguments that can be made for one type of spending over the other become blurred by the fact that social programs are often predicated on quasi-scientific propositions as to the economic benefits consequent to certain courses of social action while scientific research programs are sometimes justified on the sociologically unexamined predicates that they will make previously unimagined (and therefore nebulously-defined) solutions to economic problems available at some unspecified time in the distant future. Science and social action are both special cases, but each special in its own way. Each justifies itself by seeking to persuade that some bright future awaits us if only we spend on this thing now.
Put like that, it’s just a gamble, of course, and naturally there are ways of managing such projects: breaking down into small discrete steps each of which can be evaluated over a short term so that the possibility of support withdrawal is always there if things go awry. Given that such techniques are so well established, one wonders why separate science and social programs even exist. What reason, apart from entrenched vested interests, is there not to allow individual proposals in either arena to compete for the same common pool of funding?
That said, perhaps there is a basis for making science (as opposed to technology R&D) a special case. While technology R&D seeks working and affordable solutions to specific technical problems, the job of ‘pure’ science might be taken to describe the observations made in some specific circumstances, but in a theoretical context that allows that abstracts their meaning and allows one to divine relevance within them for as broad a range of circumstances as possible. In this way, commonalities between observations from diverse circumstances between which no relationship was previously perceived become visible and new unsuspected areas for technological development become evident. Seen that way, it is a strength, not a weakness, of pure science that its consequences are unforeseeable. But being unforeseeable, its consequences cannot be used as justification. Could it be that our commitment to science is not so much a sign of commitment to making things better, but only a commitment to unforeseeable change?