NPR logo When Does Science Become Technology And Why Does It Matter?


When Does Science Become Technology And Why Does It Matter?

There have been interesting postings this week on the cultural challenges posed by technology from Adam , Marcelo
and KC, motivating me to offer my two cents on the topic.

Nature is out there, doing her thing for some 13.7 billion years. In the activity I'll call basic science, we very-recent humans have learned to ask questions of Nature and find out how she does things.

Once we understand how Nature does things, then this information becomes a resource for a second activity, variously called technology or engineering. It's in fact straightforward to distinguish technology from basic science in that technology, by definition, entails using basic scientific understandings to generate something new. The situation can be confusing to observers because technology is often developed by persons with Ph.D. training in the basic sciences, and the "scientific method" is employed in both endeavors. But there is rarely confusion in an investigator's mind about whether she is engaging in basic science (asking a question of nature) or technological development (using an answer from nature to develop a new way of doing or making things). And it's a two-way street: a computer-chip developer may notice a novel and interesting thing about the chemistry of silicon, and should he take time out to explore these observations, he'd be back to doing basic science.

Technological tools have, of course, made countless contributions to basic scientific inquiry — where would we be without our microscopes and cyclotrons? Technology has also had a key impact on the acceptance of scientific findings. Most persons in developed countries hold core scientific understandings — things are made of atoms, creatures are cellular — from their interface with the technologies that emerge from these understandings. Each time we learn the results of a medical diagnostic test, we confront the physical/chemical/cellular nature of our bodies; each time we turn on an appliance we experience the fact of electricity.

There is, regrettably, a heavy price paid for our identification of science with technology. Once technologies are made available, we frequently discover their limitations, byproducts, and downsides — refrigeration is a fantastic idea; the hole in the ozone layer is not. Because we primarily learn about science via our experience of its emergent technology, we too often hold science, and hence scientists, responsible when the technology backfires.

Blaming scientists serves another purpose as well. There's an impressive anti-intellectual-elite streak in American culture. "Those scientists are so arrogant, so know-it-all, so sure they're right about everything. And now look at the mess they've made of things." The tone is triumphant. The scientist concept is all-too-often shrouded in ominous Jekyll-Hyde fear. If assigned to portray a scientist in a game of charades, what might first come to your mind is a greedy eureka leer, freaked-out hair, manic arm movements. You'd presumably hesitate to portray an African-American with analogous caricatures. Scientists are fair game.

Given these perspectives, I was pretty taken aback to read this paragraph from our very own Marcelo:

Through their alliances with the State and industry, scientists don't have complete control of their creations. It's the Faustian bargain that, say, Oppenheimer and the fellow workers in the Manhattan project signed. In a sense, the same bargain is signed every time we get a grant from the government or go to work for a commercial lab. So, the limits of scientific research clash with the fuzzy and often secretive goals of the State and of share holders. When working for defense or for profit, it's hard to slow things down or to control them. Power and greed roll up into an ever-growing snowball.

Here's how I'd respond. Scientists asking basic questions of nature indeed don't have control of their creations, but I'm not convinced that this is due to their nefarious alliances with State and industry or the fuzzy and secretive goals of the State and of share holders. Rather, scientists make their discoveries publically available, and technological applications of that knowledge are then pursued, sometimes by those same scientists as they "switch hats," but usually by commercial or government labs. Basic understandings of atomic nuclei quickly suggested that their properties could be engineered to produce weapons, and it was then a cultural decision — fueled by WWII — to develop this technology.

The fuel for most technological development is not the urgency of a situation like WWII, but the potential for profit. If a technology is marketable — if "people want it" and it meets whatever regulatory standards have been imposed — then it is produced.

So I'd say that what's needed is not restrictions on scientific inquiry but rather greater societal input into and responsibility for what is done with that knowledge. Since it is humans and humans alone who engage in the development of technology, it is up to us and us alone to decide which ones to engage in, and why, and at what societal cost, and for whom, and all those other ethical issues. And I wholeheartedly agree with KC that those sitting at such a fantasy deliberation table should include artists and their sensibilities.

To bring these points together, imagine that scientific inquiry establishes that a particular dominant allele of a particular gene predisposes humans to violent behavior. This is not a finding about which we can voice an ethical opinion. That's the way things are. But we can and should develop all sorts of opinions about whether to develop technological responses to that finding (gene therapy, prenatal diagnosis, screening of children) as well as, of course, all sorts of social responses as to how to best care for, nurture, and educate persons known to carry that allele should we elect to screen for it.

The core contributions of basic scientists have been their explications of what Nature is and does. Those who are uncomfortable with these explications often blame the messengers for the message. Those who are uncomfortable with the emergent technologies often blame the scientists for making them possible. Those who are uncomfortable with educational hierarchy seem particularly satisfied when they have the opportunity to lambaste scientific elitism. And meanwhile, the decisions as to which technologies get developed go right on being made in a market context.