The Frontal Cortex

Amateur Science

In the latest Seed, Steven Shapin has a great essay on the state of modern science. We take the current setup, in which science is a professional activity, shaped by peer-review journals and the priorities of funding institutions, for granted. But it was not always so. Once upon a time, scientists were curious amateurs:

Well into the 19th century, and even into the 20th, doing science was typically more of an avocation than a job. In the 17th century, the great chemist Robert Boyle not only financed his science out of his own deep pockets but also shared a common view that doing science as a “trade” was demeaning. Anyone who accepted money to pursue knowledge would compromise their integrity – who paid the piper called the tune. Isaac Newton, as professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, was not paid to do physical or mathematical research but to teach. The 19th century’s most famous scientist, Charles Darwin, was never paid to do science. And Einstein’s three great papers of 1905 were not part of his job specifications: He was then a patent clerk in Switzerland. True, over the course of history, many scientific researchers were in academic employment, but with few exceptions, before the 20th century, the job of a science professor was not to produce new knowledge but to transmit and safeguard existing knowledge. Until quite recent times, the number of people in the world paid to do original scientific research “for its own sake” was infinitesimally small.

The transformation of science from a calling to a job happened largely during the course of the past century. Indeed, science is arguably the world’s youngest profession: The routinization of the paid role is less than a hundred years old; the word “scientist,” coined in 1840, was not in standard usage until the early 20th century. And though there are current concerns over commercial and military ties, practically no one now shares Boyle’s worries that taking money to do science compromises its integrity or, indeed, that there is any conceivable alternative to government, industry, and, to a lesser extent, nonprofit foundations as sources of funding. Universities’ own funds pay for only a small portion of scientific research, and while foundations have been a significant source of support for about a century, academic scientists without government funding are rare and usually handicapped in doing their work.

Shapin is also the author of one of my favorite first lines from a work of non-fiction:

There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.

Comments

  1. #1 Anibal
    January 8, 2009

    Curious amateurs who could afford it because not everyone can spend 5 yeas abroad on a brig sloop around the world or waiting sit down the fall of an apple.

    I think better than say that science once was the issue of amateur practice and activity it is better say that science was the issue of a “leisure class” with an eager desire to know (not so frequent within the upper class so prone to laziness and bon vivant styles of life)

    There were, as much as there are now, exceptions of some geniuses who had to combine temporal work with science but with some opportunities la Gladwell.

  2. #2 Kurt
    January 8, 2009

    Sorry to take this off the center of the topic, but it seems to me that here’s another parallel between science and the arts. Throughout much of western history artists were “curious amateurs” that derived largely from the leisured classes. This is becoming more and more the case these days as well–only the rich can afford to pursue an arts career that will not produce a living wage by itself. (Of course there are the arts jobs that simply “transmit and safeguard” artistic knowledge–teachers and professors–but like with science, this is different than pursuing the arts for their own sake.) Without the NIH, NSF, etc. science could not be the “job” that it’s become. Foundations and industry just cannot provide enough resources. The government money is essential. What I’m wondering is if there’s a way to create a system for the arts such that being an artist can be a decent job in the way that being a scientist has become a decent “job”? The public is convinced of the public good of science as evidenced by the existence of huge government institutes like NIH, and yet the NEA is a joke. Do we still need to convince people that supporting the arts is a public good even though everyone is already walking around with an ipod and watching movies on their phones?

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