The ‘purpose of science’ debate goes back centuries

Last March Science Careers highlighted my friend Kenny Gibbs’ research:

Academic science could attract and keep more under-represented minority scientists, Gibbs argues, by making room for their need to have broader impacts on society than basic research positions currently allow. “Those are values that I brought into science and that you hear many bringing into science,” he says. The tension between science values and social justice values grows as people advance in their training; they find that “[social] values are no longer able to be expressed. Not only are they not rewarded, but expressing those values makes you look less serious about the scientific work.”

I thought about this passage when I re-read Alvin Weinberg’s ‘The Axiology of Science’ last month. According to Weinberg (and others), debates about the relative worth of pure versus applied research go back centuries. Francis Bacon–like Kenny–valued science for its usefulness. Science is done because “we learn how to make two blades of grass where one grew before.” Bacon’s assertion that ‘knowledge is power’ meant power over nature–another reference to his utilitarian view of science.

Others disagreed. They felt science should be devoted to the abstract pursuit of knowledge. Needless to say Bacon lost. It’s why Kenny’s research is even necessary, why cosmology gets a TV show and why scientists in international development do not.

I wonder if Kenny appreciates how old this debate is. How long people have been discussing it. While today we might apply a gendered or social-justice lens, it’s not much different than what white Christian men have been discussing since the 1500s.

As I’ve been reflecting on the importance of strategy, I’ll gently nudge Kenny: how do we change a system that has been ingrained over centuries? And along similar lines, I’ll continue asking myself how I plan to actually change how society views creationists.


  1. The rhetoric in Congress, boosted by recently proposed reductions in fields not deemed to be in the national interest (job creators and/or economic boosters), indicates that Bacon’s perspective still holds the purse. By dint of a Sarewitz axiom, Bacon’s POV still holds the power.

    1. Good point. So clearly there’s a distinction between what scientists say to ‘the public’ vs what they might say to funding agencies. (I realize these sentences have to be unpacked and made more precise.) Thanks again.

  2. I think scientists and researchers doing applied work solving huge, global challenges facing humanity including the poor, is so important it should receive much more money. Still, being on the side, I have to recognize the affect of basic or pure research on applied work. When you look at Newton’s discovery or invention (depending on your take) of calculus and the huge upsurge in technological innovation it caused (really everything in our engineering courses especially electrical engineering which affects information and communications technology), I have to admit it was helpful. Still I have to deal with some of the immediate needs and pressing problems of the day. Einstein’s relativity has altered and improved our predictions and calculations in astronomy, astrophysics, and physics, but it seems it has less practical impact than Newton’s work (it does help us with time lags between clocks at different altitudes and similar phenomena). So I struggle with the tension today, even though, I still favor work that deals with tough local and global issues especially because lives are at stake. Incidentally we have the same tension with muti-national corporations or just corporate America in our democratic capitalist society in which corporations pursue profit over purpose. I’d rather purpose, but the people with the most ability to do purpose, the ones with the most money, pursue profit moreso.

    1. People don’t always agree on purpose or the best way to go about it. Whereas everyone likes money. And besides, money gives you the ability to pursue or support whatever you think is important.

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