Is Science Political?

Michael D. Gordin in the Boston Review:

The word “science” typically evokes epistemic ambitions to explore the fundamental laws of the natural world. This is the stuff of philosophical reflection and documentary specials—and it is unquestionably important. This ethereal vision of science appears starkly divorced from the messy fray of “politics,” however you might want to understand the term.

Yet consider two other central features of today’s science: it is elite, and it is expensive. By elite, I do not mean that only certain sorts of people—the “right sorts”—have the capacity to do science. What I mean is that you cannot just pick up and decide today that you are going to be a scientist. It requires years, even decades, of training in the methods and practices of inquiry; consulting a scientist means that you are obligated to turn to someone who has already undergone that process. You do science with the scientists you have, regardless of whether they are socially or politically agreeable to you.

The expense of science is related. Especially since the end of World War II, research in cutting-edge areas of science consumes vast resources: particle accelerators, satellites, genome sequencers, large-scale field surveys, and all the monies invested in the training of those elite scientists. Someone has to pay for that. In the United States, at first that “someone” was philanthropy (such as the Rockefeller Foundation) or industry (Bell Labs), but during the Cold War it was, increasingly, the state.

More here.

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