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Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society - Book Review

Gerhard Sonnert, with Gerald Holton. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. 225 pp. $30.00.

Whilst scientific discoveries and their application are amongst the most fundamental features shaping modern societies, scientists themselves are often perceived as working in ivory towers--namely, university laboratories--completely isolated from other parts of society. In this slim volume, Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton set out to correct this perception. The former is a sociologist of science, the latter a physicist and historian of science, and both are members of the Department of Physics at Harvard University. They show through examples that scientists are heavily involved in the outside world, both through advising on government science policies and through participating in voluntary public-interest associations. They argue that the government advisory role can lead to conflicts between scientists' own professional judgement and what the government ultimately decides, which is why some scientists prefer to work through voluntary interest groups--although the same problem can arise here, too.

A central feature of the advice to government is about levels of support to different fields of scientific research. The authors argue in favor of the "Jeffersonian" mode of support, which is a compromise between the "Newtonian" mode (curiosity-driven research) and the "Baconian" mode (application-driven research). They describe in some detail the efforts made, principally by science advisors under the Carter Administration, to operationalize the Jeffersonian notion by making all government departments and agencies define the basic research that would directly contribute to the long-term achievement of their objectives. In many ways, this exercise resembles attempts made more recently in some European countries to identify fields of basic research with potential long-term applications (Technology Foresight Steering Group, 1995).

The authors distinguish three main waves of scientists' involvement in voluntary public interest groups: first, from the 1940s, in various campaigns and movements to restrict the development of nuclear weapons; second, the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s; third, beginning in the 1980s, the ethical and social concerns about the potential applications of modern genetics. In all these fields, scientists have contributed to improved public understanding of important and often complex problems. They have also revealed the importance, and difficulty, of distinguishing the scientific (in which expert opinion, in principle, has authority) from the political (in which, in principle, it does not).

The strength of this book is its comprehensive survey of the role of scientists as advisors and activists in the U.S. since 1945, together with excellent supporting bibliography and background material, but the analysis suffers from two weaknesses. First, it neglects the well-documented complementarities between basic research and its applications: practitioners consciously benefit from and actively support the public funding of long-term research in the ivory tower, which is not as isolated as its occupants might think (see, e.g., Committee for Economic Development, 1998). Second, it does not examine systematically the strong and longstanding links between government-funded basic research, on the one hand, and its applications in health, weapons, and the economy, on the other. Amongst other things, this would show that governmental health and military planners in the U.S. have been very conscious and far-sighted about the practical usefulness of basic research. It would also help explain the increasingly active role that U.S. scientists now play in business firms in the information technology and biotechnology sectors (Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, 1999).

Finally, an uncomfortable thought after September 11: the emergence of scientists' voluntary involvement in public interest activities reflects in part the increasing diffusion and democratization of scientific knowledge. So does the emergence of high-tech terrorism.


Committee for Economic Development (CED)

1998 America's Basic Research: Prosperity through Discovery. New York: CED.

Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

1999 Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Technology Foresight Steering Group

1995 Progress through Partnership. London: HMSO.

Keith Pavitt

R. M. Phillips Professor of Science and Technology Policy

SPRU--Science and Technology Policy Research

University of Sussex England

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

Bibliography for: "Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society - Book Review"

Keith Pavitt "Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society - Book Review". Administrative Science Quarterly. FindArticles.com. 26 Jun, 2011. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4035/is_4_47/ai_107762244/

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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