Sunday, March 28, 2010

Joseph Ben-David - Scientific Growth - Ch. 9: The Profession of Science and Its Powers

Ben-David is looking at scientific research as “profession” with certain defining characteristics including:  higher education as an entry requirement; a monopoly over the practice of their profession; control over who is admitted to their ranks; and a limitation over their contractual obligation to their clients.  But the corporate institutions of scientists need to legitimate their activities within the social order, lest they be seen as subversive, and the scientific method as it is practiced by scientists is one of the tools that is used to prevent subversion, by promoting self-regulation.

Another aspect of the professionalization is the creation of autonomous academies with some official standing, which can provide scientifically competent judgements that would be accepted and honored by the general public.  Such institutions include: the Royal Society of London, which represented science to the public and rewarded scientific discovery and the Paris Academy of Sciences, which was more controlling and came to be perceived as a political body regulating science rather than representing it.

Ben-David claims that in pure or basic science, only the scientific community has the competence to assess the results of research and to make informed estimates about the scientific potentialities of persons and projects (shades of Polanyi) but that when it comes to the application of science, the scientific community is not more capable of judging the practical results of the research or guessing the practical potential of people or projects.  Nor does he believe that the scientific community should act as the allocator of funds between different fields, because purely scientific considerations do not provide all the necessary criteria for a rational choice (shades of Weinberg’s trans-science).  Scientists can, however, estimate the upper limits of the funds that can be expended on research without undue risk of waste and the lowest limit needed to maintain scientific capacity.

He seems to want a middle ground between science and the public, science and governments, and the republic of science and trans-science.

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