Retiring the Social Contract for Science
Guston, David H., Issues in Science and Technology
Updating the way we talk and think about the place of science in society will lead to more effective policy.
A widely held tenet among policy scholars maintains that the way people talk about a policy influences how they and others conceive of policy problems and options. In contemporary political lingo, the way you talk the talk influences the way you walk the walk.
Pedestrian as this principle may seem, policy communities are rarely capable of reflexive examinations of their rhetoric to see if the words used, and the ideas rep resented, help or hinder the resolution of policy conflict. In the science policy community, the rhetoric of the "social contract for science" deserves such examination. Upon scrutiny, the social contract for science reveals important truths about science policy. It evokes the voluntary but mutual responsibilities between government and science, the production of the public good of basic research, and the investment in future prosperity that is research.
But continued reliance on it, and especially calls for its renewal or rearticulation, are fundamentally unsound. Based on a misapprehension of the recent history of science policy and on a failed model of the interaction between politics and science, such evocations insist on a pious rededication of the polity to science, a numbing rearticulation of the rationale for the public support of research, or an obscurantist resystemization of research nomenclature. Their effect is to distract from a new science policy, what I call "collaborative assurance," that has been implemented for 20 years, albeit in a haphazard way.
One cannot travel the science policy corridors of Washington, D.C., or for that matter, read the pages of this journal, without stumbling across the social contract for science. The late Rep. George E. Brown, Jr., was fond of the phrase, as Gerald Holton and Gerhard Sonnert remind readers of Issues (Fall 1999) in their argument for resurrecting "Jeffersonian science" as a "third mode" to guide research policy. The social contract for science is part of the science policy scripture, including work by Harvey Brooks, Bruce Smith, the late Donald Stokes, and others. Its domain is catholic: Last year's World Conference on Science, co-organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and the International Council for Science, called for a "new social contract" that would update terms for society's support for science and science's reciprocal responsibilities to society.
In a recent book, I unearth a more complete genealogy of the social contract for science, pinpoint its demise two decades ago, and discuss the policies created in its wake. I find its origin in two affiliated concepts: the actual contracts and grants that science policy scholar Don K. Price placed at the center of his understanding of the "new kind of federalism" in the relationship between government and science; and a social contract for scientists, a relationship among professionals that the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman described as critical to the maintenance of norms of conduct among scientists. Either or both of these concepts could have evolved into the social contract for science.
Most observers associate the social contract for science with Vannevar Bush's report Science, The Endless Frontier, published at the end of World War II. But Bush makes no mention in his report of such an idea and neither does John Steelman in his Science and Public Policy five years later. Yet commonalities between the two, despite their partisan differences, point toward a tacit understanding of four essential elements of postwar science policy: the unique partnership between the federal government and universities for the support of basic research; the integrity of scientists as the recipients of federal largesse; the easy translation of research results into economic and other benefits, and the institutional and conceptual separation between politics and science. …