I had the privilege this year to edit an issue of Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science. Issue #7, focusing on “Economic Aspects of Science,” is now online. We have contributions from many authors that readers of this blog should be familiar with, including Steven Fuller, Mark Brown, David Tyfield, and Esther-Mirjam Sent. Reproduced below is my editor’s introduction to the focused discussion.
Science has long been understood as an economic endeavor. As early as 1879, Charles Sanders Peirce applied abstract economic reasoning to model scientific decision-making (Peirce 1967). Beginning in the 1930s, chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi and physicist-turned-sociologist John Desmond Bernal clashed over whether the science of their time was best organized according to free-market or socialist principles (Polanyi 2000; Bernal 1939). And perhaps most well known to students of science, Vannevar Bush argued in his 1945 report, Science the Endless Frontier, that the social and economic benefits of science justified public funding of scientific research.
In recent years, it has only become more clear that science cannot be understood separately from its economic circumstances. During the Cold War, massive government funding for science in the United States and elsewhere created the illusion that science could be understood as a disinterested search for truth insulated from economic concerns (cf. Merton 1942). However, since the early 1980s, science has entered what Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent call a “Globalized Privatization Regime,” characterized by increased private funding for research and globalized intellectual property laws (Sent and Mirowski 2008). Even those scientists who still rely on public funding are increasingly being asked to justify their research in economic terms (Brown, this issue). With most scientists no longer protected from market considerations, their activities can no longer be understood as resulting solely from a desire for knowledge and peer recognition. Rather, these scientists must be understood as entrepreneurs in the literal sense: as individuals seeking funding from a variety of sources in order to further enterprises that will yield tangible economic benefits.
Even philosophers, who as a group have been very reluctant to acknowledge that science is undergoing a fundamental restructuring, have recently begun worrying about the new economic circumstances of science. Philosophers have never shied away from employing economic methodology for understanding science (eg. Radnitzky 1987; Kitcher 1993; Goldman and Shaked 1991). However, they have generally viewed science as an abstract economy, where scientists compete not for dollars but for esteem. Now, prompted primarily by troubling developments in the biological sciences, they have begun turning their attention to the concrete economy of science (eg. Radder 2010). The most common concern expressed by philosophers is that the commercialization of scientific research is undermining the Mertonian norms of disinterest and communalism, and as a result, undermining science’s objectivity and epistemic authority (eg. Resnik 2007). Consequently, it is now fair to claim that researchers from every discipline of science studies have become interested in science as an economic activity.
The papers in this issue’s focused discussion build upon that interdisciplinary interest in science as an economic activity. They include contributions from historians, sociologists, philosophers, and economists.