“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”
Science, in many ways, is a self-contained enterprise. It has its own language that is indecipherable to outsiders, it’s own ‘parties’ where people spend countless hours hyping their successes to their ‘less fortunate’ colleagues in between bouts of off-key karaoke, and its own office buildings with walls full of scribble. Every couple months, the members of this ‘secret club’ are forced to wear their finest clothing and put their technical language to the side. This custom is science’s most substantial interaction with the outside world and is all about one thing—funding.
The secret password to this club was established long ago. The language is still evolving, but its syntax has been in use for millennia. Some might say that there is an inherent value to just being a member of the club. I suggest that science has become lost deep inside a rabbit hole.
Since scientists, whether in academia or industry, are always looking for funding they are frequently prompted to answer the dreaded “Why Question”—an explanation of the practical value of their work. Value is at times presented in terms of societal benefit or innovation but is just as often entirely self-contained within the scientific enterprise. The attempt for self-contained progress has been called many things, but the most popular name has been “basic science.”
Basic science exists on a plane independent from the needs and wants of society. It is a means for accumulating knowledge, and, according to Vannebar Bush’s ‘Linear Model of Innovation’, the precursor to fruitful applied research. By many accounts, basic science has been incredibly successful. Basic science brought us quantum mechanics, genomics as well as several other fields whose initial relevance to society may not have been considered. It is, nevertheless, a rabbit hole…but it doesn’t have to be.
There are two possible justifications for scientific research: the inherent value of knowledge accumulation and societal benefit. The philosopher of science Phillip Kitcher notes that there are “vast numbers of true [scientific] statements it would be utterly pointless to ascertain.” Scientific knowledge, according to Kitcher, does not have innate value, but rather must have some external validation. Kitcher explains that this epistemic validation can be achieved by connecting a research question to a broader question that is related to an aspect of nature that we naturally find “salient or surprising.” Epistemic value is rooted in natural curiosity, but the question is whose natural curiosity do we actually take into account?
The answer, as you would guess, is the secret club. The club wishes to dig deeper into the rabbit hole—no one else, however, is allowed within the rabbit hole’s event horizon.
The focus on the inherent value of the knowledge accumulation has a fundamental problem with democratization. The funding for this research is rooted in tax money taken from every eligible citizen, but the value of the research is only apparent to those who have already gone to explore the rabbit hole. To use this justification is to make the club even more secretive and more removed from society as a whole.
Societal benefit is the only equitable justification. Scientists must rise from the recesses of the rabbit hole and work on actually solving problems. Problem solving may be considered to be the job of engineering as opposed to scientific research, but we must come to see that divide as entirely arbitrary. The science policy expert Dan Sarewitz notes that the science institutions of the future must be “closely linked to the people and places whose urgent problems need to be solved; they will cultivate strong lines of accountability to those for whom solutions are important; they will incentivize scientists to care about the problems more than the production of knowledge.”
Basic science cannot exist as an independent entity. The Princeton Professor of Political Science Donald Stokes proposed an alternative to Bush’s linear model that accounted for a more innovative research process. Stokes’ model contained a 2×2 matrix with utility and intellectual value as the inputs. The ideal quadrant of the matrix is what Stokes calls “Pasteur’s Quadrant.” Louis Pasteur simultaneously worked on basic and applied research projects and used his experiences in each to enrich his overall ability as a scientist. The interplay between basic and applied research did not occur in stages as Bush suggests, but rather simultaneously.
Louis Pasteur simultaneously worked on basic and applied research projects and used his experiences in each to enrich his overall ability as a scientist. The interplay between basic and applied research did not occur in stages as Bush suggests, but rather simultaneously.
The move from the linear model is a ticket out of the rabbit hole. It is admission to the world that has so many problems that could desperately use the effort that has been poured into basic research. Alice did not have the chance to think about stopping herself before she fell through the rabbit hole, hopefully the scientists of the future prove to be more successful.