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1 June 2009 What Good is Science?
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Biology Under the Influence is a lightly edited collection of 31 essays by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins. Many of the essays originally appeared in essentially the same form in columns Lewontin and Levins wrote for the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism in the late 1990s, though the essays span two decades since the publication of their book The Dialectical Biologist. Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University; Levins, also at Harvard, is John Rock Professor of Population Sciences, Department of Population and International Health. Together, they write these essays not only as accomplished biologists but also as social and political activists deeply committed to action, knowledge, and theory.

Especially compelling are the essays “Organism and Environment,” “False Dichotomies,”and “The Return of Old Diseases and the Appearance of New Ones,” which exemplify Lewontin and Levins' commitment to a dynamic, dialectical interpretation of complex interactions within and between levels of organization in biology and nature. For instance, they underscore that “the environment” is not a static background to development and evolution, but rather organisms simultaneously develop within and substantively alter their environments; moreover, other organisms are part of “the environment,” further demonstrating the necessarily dynamic nature of organism-environment relationships. These ideas will be familiar to readers of the authors' previous works, such as Lewontin's The Triple Helix, but the luxury Biology Under the Influence affords is having pithy and accessible essays at hand to introduce the ideas and reiterate them in regard to a broad range of topics. And the breadth of topics covered is indeed remarkable, including science and progress, human genetics and genomics, Cuban agriculture, the search for life on other planets, and the foibles of evolutionary psychology.

In these collected essays, as throughout their joint writings, Lewontin and Levins articulate what they see as the “dual nature” of science, guided—but not rationally so—by both nature and money. While an argument can be made in favor of intellectual curiosity as our only Sherpa through scientific terra incognita, such an argument is inadequate to the reality of science funding. Not all research can be funded all the time—and certainly not with public funds—so a patchwork of public and philanthropic and corporate funds, some undirected and some strategically invested, has been marshaled to support scientists' explorations. This is simply the way things have worked out; there is no reason to believe that it is the optimal arrangement for promoting important scientific discoveries. Scientifically significant questions may be displaced in favor of socially salable ones (miracle cures, for example). Socially significant questions maybe displaced in favor of commercially viable ones (blockbuster drugs). The end result sates neither the hunger of intellectual curiosity nor the appetite of the interested public's interest. We are left instead with biology under the influence not only of corporate research agendas but also of partisan politics and simplistic reductionism. This perfect storm produces “a pattern of insight and blindness, of knowledge and ignorance, that is not dictated by nature, leaving us helpless in the big problems facing our species” (p. 9).


Other scientists and commentators on science have made similar diagnoses. But widely varying accounts of the etiology, treatment regimen, and prognosis for the contemporary state of science accompany each of these diagnoses. In a recent essay in Issues in Science and Technology, Arizona State University president Michael Crow laments the ways in which universities and funders remain committed to producing specialized new knowledge within the jealously guarded boundaries of age-old disciplines, and fail to foster innovative research collaborations focused on answering real-world problems. Crow does not demonize corporate investment in academic research, but rather challenges us all to think differently about how to frame and address the serious problems besetting our species locally and globally. For some, this is a nonstarter—the solution is to boost public funding of basic science; for others, the strategy is to facilitate the “translation” of basic science into outcomes in the clinic and elsewhere, regardless of the impact on basic science and regardless of the current status of the “source language”; for still others, the idea is to minimize curiosity-driven science and rationalize the science funding process—or to turn it over completely to the private sector.

The problem, though, is that there is no equivalent to evidence based medicine to help solve our science funding woes. There is no evidence base at all. Science policy is not a scientific endeavor, and so we don't have relevant data or even well-developed norms and values to guide science policymaking. A relatively new initiative at the National Science Foundation called “The Science of Science and Innovation Policy” might help, but only if it is not overrun by econometricians tracking a few barely relevant variables.

What good is science? I mean this as a serious question, an empirical question; it is not a rhetorical ploy. It might seem self-evident that science is inherently good, and needs no justification. But that is too facile a supposition. Science is a suite of questions and strategies and techniques for discovery, but not just any old discovery will do. Significant discoveries are what we're after in science, and the significance of a discovery or a research program must be demonstrated and not assumed. If Lewontin and Levins are right about our questions and strategies and techniques being captive, under the influence, canalized by reductionism and vested interests, then the good of contemporary science is not at all clear. Rather than assume the intrinsic value of science, let us take the justification of science seriously as a challenge.


Thanks to Nate Johnson, Jenny Brian, and Dan Sarewitz for discussion of the topics addressed here.

Jason Scott Robert "What Good is Science?," BioScience 59(6), 524-525, (1 June 2009).
Published: 1 June 2009

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