Monday, December 08, 2008

Michael Polanyi and the Purity of Science

Everybody agrees that engineering and technology these days depend on science. Modern engineering is inconceivable without the advances made possible by the Scientific Revolution, both in our state of knowledge and in our approach to knowledge itself. One of the twentieth century's most profound thinkers about the scientific way of knowing and its connection to technology was Michael Polanyi (1891-1976).

Born of Jewish parentage in Hungary, he obtained a Ph. D. in chemistry and began a career as a research chemist in Germany. He married a Catholic there and left with his family for England shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. At the University of Manchester, his interests turned gradually from chemistry to the philosophy of science. When he was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures for 1951-52, he focused on the personal nature of supposedly "objective" scientific knowledge and published his thoughts in his best-known work, Personal Knowledge, in 1958. Fifty years later, his arguments about the purity of science and its relationship to technology are probably worth heeding even more now than when he wrote them.

Personal Knowledge is a deep and wide-ranging book, and all I want to do today is to give you a small sample that touches on the relationship between science and engineering, and how we allow the practical needs of technology to dominate the way we do science at our peril.

If you write a proposal these days to the U. S. National Science Foundation for even the most abstruse and theoretical project, you will have to address two questions in your proposal. The first, appropriately, is "What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?" That is, how will this work advance the state of scientific knowledge? This is an entirely reasonable criterion, and one which has been in place since the early days of the Foundation in the 1950s. However, the answer to a second question is now given equal weight in the funding reviews: "What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?" In an explanatory paragraph, the Foundation expands on this second question thus: "How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? . . . .What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?" Unless an investigator can muster adequate answers to both main questions, the proposal stands practically no chance of getting funded.

Now the NSF distributes taxpayers' money, and the taxpayers have a right to know what they're getting. But contrast that second question with Polanyi's words about why scientists should do science. In describing how science fares in developing countries, he says that "it suffers from a lack of response to its true values. Consequently, the authorities grant insufficient time for research; politics play havoc with appointments; businessmen deflect interest from science by subsidizing only practical projects. . . . Encircled today between the crude utilitarianism of the philistine and the ideological utilitarianism of the modern revolutionary movement, the love of pure science may falter and die. And if this sentiment were lost, the cultivation of pure science would lose the only driving force which can guide it toward the achievement of true scientific value. The opinion is widespread that the cultivation of science would always be continued for the sake of its practical advantages. . . . The scientific method was devised precisely for the purpose of elucidating the nature of things under more carefully controlled conditions and by more rigorous criteria than are present in the situations created by practical problems. These conditions and criteria can be discovered only by taking a purely scientific interest in the matter, which again can exist only in minds educated in the appreciation of scientific value. Such sensibility cannot be switched on at will for purposes alien to its inherent passion [e. g. for writing answers to question about the "broader impact" of research]. No important discovery can be made in science by anyone who does not believe that science is important—indeed, supremely important—in itself."

I wonder how far we in the U. S. have gone in the direction that Polanyi warned about. I see several signs that maybe we've gone quite a distance. Corporations have long since shuttered their basic-research divisions: Bell Laboratories is no more, IBM and Xerox are no longer spending large fractions of their income on basic research, and even before the present economic downturn, any CEO who authorized spending that couldn't promise a return in one to three quarters was asking for trouble from the stockholders. Following the fiasco of the Superconducting Supercollider in the 1990s, the axis of high-energy physics research left the U. S. and returned to its birthplace, Europe. We are relying on the Russians for the next few years of access to the International Space Station once the Space Shuttle is (finally!) terminated. And native-born Americans seem to be allergic to almost any kind of graduate study that doesn't promise quick financial rewards. That eliminates science and engineering graduate study for most of them, which explains the highly international flavor of most graduate schools, and by now most engineering and science college faculties.

That is great news for the folks who come to the U. S. to better their education, of course. We are 99% a nation of immigrants anyway, and I do not begrudge anyone a place in the great adventure of science and technology, no matter where they came from. But we can't rely exclusively on immigration from places which, in another generation or so, will have graduate schools as good or better than ours, partly because people in those countries seem to have learned what we're in the process of forgetting: that some science, in fact all true science, has to be pursued for philosophia—the love of knowledge, not for what it can do or how much money it can make. Some engineers and politicians may not like to hear that, but unless we're prepared to do without new science, we should at least recognize the problem, which, as in any engineering ethics issue, is the first step toward solving it.

Sources: The Polanyi quotations are from pp. 182-183 of Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958). The questions an NSF applicant must answer can be found in the Grant Proposal Guide on the NSF website,

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