Can Science Survive in the Modern Age?

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  01 Oct 1971:
Vol. 174, Issue 4004, pp. 21-30
DOI: 10.1126/science.174.4004.21


A recent newspaper account of the 1970 annual meeting of the AAAS was headlined, "Science's Blank Check Bounces." I am not, however, advocating that giving a "blank check" to science will solve all our problems. The discussion of science policy in the last three decades has too often confused necessary with sufficient conditions. A strong basic science is a necessary condition for a strong economy, a livable environment, and a tolerable society. But it is by no means a sufficient condition. That a vital science is an indispensable tool of human welfare in the present stage of evolution of man on the planet does not mean that it is the only tool or that it cannot also produce the opposite. Indeed, there seems almost to be a complementarity between the power for good and the power for evil inherent in science. Nuclear energy poses the possibility of nuclear holocaust, but is indispensable to a continuing supply of energy after fossil fuels run out. The computer threatens us with "big brother," but seems indispensable to the rational management of our complex social structures. Molecular genetics could be used for frightful purposes, but opens up the prospect of the final conquest of human disease and food supply. Drugs which control human behavior have opened up frightful possibilities for abuse and self-destruction, but they also offer the hope of conquest of mental illness. What I have referred to are really technologies, not science, but science is needed to use them wisely, although it will not guarantee their wise use.

Although science cannot ask for a blank check, there is a part of it which must have the autonomy to "do its own thing"if it is to continue to serve society. How much of science should have this autonomy, and what sort of accountability should be required of it will be matters of continuing debate. Some accountability outside the scientific system itself is essential, as in any other human activity, but the degree of external accountability which is necessary will depend also on the success with which science maintains its own system of internal accountability, guaranteeing the intellectual excellence and integrity of its results. Although I do not believe scientists can be held accountable for the uses which society makes of the knowledge they produce, they do have an obligation to make clear the implications of this knowledge insofar as it is within their special intellectual competence to do so. However, I believe that the highest allegiance of science must continue to be to truth as defined by the validation procedures of the scientific process itself, and that the distortion of scientific results or the selective use of evidence for political purposes, no matter how worthy, is unforgivable insofar as it is presented cloaked by the authority and imputed objectivity of science.

That science should have a measure of autonomy does not mean it cannot also respond to new social priorities. As in the past, new social missions can open up exciting new scientific questions, as fundamental as any generated by the internal workings of science. However, what is important is that no matter how much the broad strategy of science might be influenced by social priorities, the tactics should be largely governed by scientific criteria. Furthermore, it is essential that some science be supported and cultivated for its own sake alone. Here the primary criterion must be excellence as judged scientifically, that is, by internal standards. The fraction of the total technical effort that is supported in this way should have some degree of constancy over the long term.

You are no doubt wondering what is the answer to the question posed by the title of this article. I cannot give a definite answer one way or the other. The threats to the integrity of science, both from within and from without, are probably greater than at any time in the past, because science is much more a part of the total social and political process, no longer the semihobby of a few dedicated and somewhat eccentric individuals. But I am an optimist. I do not think that the scientific enterprise is going down the drain. It will change, as science has always changed. It will respond to new social priorities, but, like an organism responding to disease, it will develop antibodies which will fight and finally contain excessive control by external criteria, and in fact will transform these external pressures into new opportunities and new fundamental fields of inquiry. But I could be wrong!