Saturday, August 20, 2016

American science rests on foundations funded by the Department of Defense

Americans lionize the scientist as head-in-the-clouds genius (the Einstein hero) and the inventor as misfit-in-the-garage genius (the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hero). The discomfiting reality, however, is that much of today’s technological world exists because of DOD’s role in catalyzing and steering science and technology. This was industrial policy, and it worked because it brought all of the players in the innovation game together, disciplined them by providing strategic, long-term focus for their activities, and shielded them from the market rationality that would have doomed almost every crazy, over-expensive idea that today makes the world go round. The great accomplishments of the military-industrial complex did not result from allowing scientists to pursue “subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity,” but by channeling that curiosity toward the solution of problems that DOD wanted to solve.

Such goal-driven industrial policies are supposed to be the stuff of Soviet five-year plans, not market-based democracies, and neither scientists nor policymakers have had much of an appetite for recognizing DOD’s role in creating the foundations of our modern economy and society. Vannevar Bush’s beautiful lie has been a much more appealing explanation, ideologically and politically. Not everyone, however, has been fooled.
Bush's beautiful lie, "Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown." The truth:
First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.

Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.

Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences. 
Especially interesting in the context of recent discussions about 'digital humanities' and 'neoliberalism.'

H/t 3QD.

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