A Vision of Jeffersonian Science

By Holton, Gerald; Sonnert, Gerhard | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

A Vision of Jeffersonian Science


Holton, Gerald, Sonnert, Gerhard, Issues in Science and Technology


Jefferson's decision to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition reflected a philosophy of government support for science that makes good sense today.

The public attitude toward science is still largely positive in the United States; but for a vocal minority, the fear of risks and even catastrophes that might result from scientific progress has become paramount. Additionally, in what is called the "science wars," central claims of scientific epistemology have come under attack by nonscientists in the universities. Some portions of the political sector consider basic scientific research far less worthy of government support than applied research, whereas other politicians castigate the support of applied research as "corporate welfare."

Amid the choir of dissonant voices, Congress has shown interest in developing what is being called "a new contract between science and society" for the post - Cold War era. As the late Representative George E. Brown, Jr., stated, "A new science policy should articulate the public's interest in supporting science - the goals and values the public should expect of the scientific enterprise." Whatever the outcome, the way science has been supported during the past decades, the motivation for such support, and the priorities for spending are likely to undergo changes, with consequences that may well test the high standing that U.S. science has achieved over the past half century.

In this situation of widespread soul-searching, our aim is to propose an imperative for an invigorated science policy that adds to the well-established arguments for government-sponsored basic scientific research. In a novel way, that imperative tightly couples basic research with the national interest. The seemingly quite opposite two main types of science research projects that have been vying for support in the past and to this day are often called basic or "curiosity-driven" versus applied or "mission-oriented." Although these common characterizations have some usefulness, they harbor two crucial flaws. The first is that in actual practice these two contenders usually interact and collaborate closely, despite what the most fervent advocates of either type may think. The history of science clearly teaches that many of the great discoveries that ultimately turned out to have beneficial effects for society were motivated by pure curiosity with no thought given to such benefits; likewise, the history of technology recounts magnificent achievements in basic science by those who embarked on their work with practical or developmental interests.

As the scientist-statesman Harvey Brooks commented, we should really be talking about a "seamless web." The historian's eye perceives the seemingly unrelated pursuits of basic knowledge, technology, and instrument-oriented developments in today's practice of science to be a single, tightly-woven fabric. Harold Varmus, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), eloquently acknowledged the close association of the more applied biomedical advances with progress in the more basic sciences: "Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods. Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental discoveries in many different fields. Some of these are so obvious that we lose sight of them - like the role of nuclear physics in producing radioisotopes essential for most of modern medicine." Varmus went on to cite a host of other examples that outline the seamless web between medicine and a wide range of basic science disciplines.

The second important flaw in the usual antithesis is that these two widespread and ancient modes of thinking about science, pure versus applied, have tended to displace and derogate a third way that combines aspects of the two. This third mode now deserves the attention of researchers and policymakers. But we by no means advocate that the third mode replace the other two modes. …

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