Science & Tech

Moral dimensions of ‘the scientific life’

5 min read

Shapin explores the significance — and unreliability — of scientists’ points of view

Scientific knowledge is reliable and it is authoritative. It is also often understood to be impersonal: The personal characteristics of a researcher are not thought to influence his or her findings. In recent work, historian Steven Shapin assumes the reliability and authority of scientific knowledge but illustrates how scientists’ personal characteristics and traits figure prominently in the making, maintenance, and perceived authority of scientific knowledge.

In “The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation” (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Shapin explores the history of the scientific profession during the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st. He considers, particularly, the virtues and vices of those who create scientific and technical knowledge, and uncovers lessons we can learn about our society by exploring the characters of scientists.

“Talking about ‘who the scientist is’… [opens] a window through which one can see quite a lot about how we live, what we value, and the general shape of our culture and its sensibilities,” says Shapin, Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science.

Shapin argues that in modern society, the scientist, like a priest or minister in an earlier age, is widely regarded as a spokesperson for reality.

Scientists’ personal virtues are increasingly important at the leading edges of recent, often controversial, scientific and technical knowledge, according to Shapin. Because many fields are experiencing rapid institutional and intellectual change, they are shot through with what he calls “normative uncertainty.” There are few, if any, pre-existing models, for example, for the development of a biotech start-up or a company designing a new kind of software. When building industrial research laboratories from the ground up, scientists and research managers must determine how to motivate and recruit competent people, locate financing, set research agendas, and convince others that a market exists for their product.

While these elements may be routinely available for the opening of a fast-food franchise, enterprises at the forefront of scientific and technological industry are not standardized in that way.

“At companies such as Google and Apple, we often see some extraordinarily imaginative approaches to the organization of people, ‘sociology experiments’ in the encouragement and management of innovation,” says Shapin.

Often, the philosophy and mission of the company and its research are embodied in an individual — a charismatic leader who sets the tone for the organization. A personal vision becomes essential to the company’s development and research. Shapin offers Steve Jobs at Apple and Craig Venter at Celera Genomics as examples of charismatic individuals whose authority has been integral to the development of their companies and their research trajectories.

“The Scientific Life” addresses research (and researchers) dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, a period, Shapin says, when charismatic leaders emerged at companies like General Electric, DuPont, and Eastman Kodak. The organization and management of these laboratories had to be innovative, because few, if any, patterns for the industrial research laboratory existed.

“The word ‘charisma’ was not part of the vernacular until the 1940s, but the director of Eastman Kodak’s research laboratory said that each laboratory was the ‘shadow of a single man,’” says Shapin.

Shapin’s previous work deals with the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Much of the research for the current book was conducted while Shapin was on the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, where his fascination with the local institutional culture of scientific entrepreneurship partly inspired him to write the book.

Shapin employed many traditional historical methods in researching the book. To gain an understanding of the industrial laboratories of the early 20th century, for example, he looked at organizational charts, accounting practices, trade reports, and journals. But he also interviewed a number of scientists and research managers currently at work, an unusual practice for a historian.

Industrial research and academic inquiry are both discussed in Shapin’s book, and he is quick to point out that he is not impressed with commonly held opinions about a fundamental divide between the two. Often, academic research is portrayed as pure and without constraints, while industrial research is said to be merely concerned with the bottom line.

Shapin explains that these perceptions are inaccurate, and the dialogue should move beyond black-and-white contrasts between academia and industry and focus instead upon the more fine-grained texture of “spaces of free inquiry” in whatever institutional type they may appear. In both areas, he explains, there are opportunities for unfettered inquiry as well as constraints.

“There has been so much celebration and so much accusation about institutional types, and so little interest in textured description,” says Shapin. “When you start describing research environments, you see much more of a pastiche. If we are truly interested in the discovery of new ideas, those of us in academia should welcome comparison to our equivalents at Google or Apple or biotech companies. I feel that the imposition of a ‘business ethos’ on academia has often misrepresented the practical realities of managing and encouraging innovation in many business environments.”