Sunday, August 29, 2010

Steven Shapin on Professional Science

Scientific research is a job, a decently remunerated living for significant numbers of people. According to the most recent statistics assembled by the National Science Foundation, there are 5.4 million Americans in science and engineering occupations, up from 3.3 million a decade ago, and from fewer than 200,000 in 1950. [...]

It was not always this way. Well into the 19th century, and even into the 20th, doing science was typically more of an avocation than a job. In the 17th century, the great chemist Robert Boyle not only financed his science out of his own deep pockets but also shared a common view that doing science as a “trade” was demeaning. Anyone who accepted money to pursue knowledge would compromise their integrity — who paid the piper called the tune. Isaac Newton, as professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, was not paid to do physical or mathematical research but to teach. The 19th century’s most famous scientist, Charles Darwin, was never paid to do science. And Einstein’s three great papers of 1905 were not part of his job specifications: He was then a patent clerk in Switzerland. True, over the course of history, many scientific researchers were in academic employment, but with few exceptions, before the 20th century, the job of a science professor was not to produce new knowledge but to transmit and safeguard existing knowledge. Until quite recent times, the number of people in the world paid to do original scientific research “for its own sake” was infinitesimally small.

The transformation of science from a calling to a job happened largely during the course of the past century. Indeed, science is arguably the world’s youngest profession: The routinization of the paid role is less than a hundred years old; the word “scientist,” coined in 1840, was not in standard usage until the early 20th century.

More here. Hat tip: Rahul Basu.