Monday, July 12, 2010

The World's Youngest Profession

We all know the world oldest profession (though I never figured why). But the world's youngest comes as a surprise. Robert Boyle financed his experiments out of his own pocket. Isaac Newton was paid to teach, not to research mechanics and gravity. Albert Einstein's famous three papers were written when he was a patent clerk in Berne. Charles Darwin was never paid to do science. The transformation of science from a calling to a paid job is a recent phenomenon -- developed mostly over the last century gaining momentum after World War II.

Stephen Shapin at Seed Magazine traces the development of the scientist over the last century or so, and presents some interesting facts along the way. His analysis concentrates on American science, and it would be useful to know how India fares. For examples, it appears only 9% of Americans feel that their tax dollars should be spent of science research which has no immediate technological or social benefits. Today almost two-thirds of all American science and engineering degree-holders are working either in the for-profit sector or are self-employed; only 9 percent work for colleges or universities. (There seems to be something special about this 9%).

Even pure science has long had a significant presence outside academia. At the origins of corporate research in the early 20th century, big companies such as General Electric, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, and DuPont were the dominant sponsors of industrial science, and although the great majority of their money went to applied research and development, government and academia then supplied so little funding for basic research that most of that too was done in industry. It is now widely said that the research laboratories of big industrial firms are on their way out: The decline and fall of Bell Labs and the so-called “crisis in innovation” in global Big Pharma have both made recent headlines. Yet, if anything, the place of science in the for-profit sector has become more secure due to the past four decades of growth by small, entrepreneurial high-tech and biotech firms, where the boundary between making things and making knowledge is increasingly unclear and even irrelevant, and by the burgeoning commitment to all sorts of scientific research by such companies as Microsoft, Intel, and, most visibly, Google. The commercial sector now does about 70 percent of all American R&D in dollar terms. And while the overwhelming majority of corporate R&D remains biased toward development and applied research, about a fifth of US basic research is still done in industry.
I have no numbers for India, but I think it is obvious that the extent of 'pure science' supported by industrial or other commercial enterprises is negligible. This is clearly the result of our many years of socialism, and, of course has its good side -- scientists have a certain degree of autonomy which might not exist if they worked for commercial labs. (I do not see any industry in India with the kind of vision for unfettered research that the erstwhile Bell Labs had). On the other hand, there are always questions about how far the Indian Government can go to support basic science (this is even more true in my field of High Energy where applications to industry or to society do not exist, at least any time in the near future). And even with generous funding, its nature is highly skewed in the Indian context. Research Labs, IITs, IISERs are generously funded, whereas universities are starved of funds for even the most basic needs. Is the solution to look for at least partial funding (this can happen and is happening in condensed matter and in biology) from private sources and perhaps put up with some kind of partial loss of autonomy? Whatever it is, the article provides some useful talking points about the changing nature of the scientific profession.


Sourendu said...

... the extent of 'pure science' supported by industrial or other commercial enterprises is negligible. This is clearly the result of our many years of socialism...

Not clear. Very minor support, or none, for R&D from enterprises is an economically stable strategy. The interesting question is why there are some exception. For example: why did something like Bell Labs survive for as long as it did?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

To this day, IBM, Microsoft, Google and others have research wings that employ some of the brightest minds in the world to work on problems whose commercial prospects are remote at best. It's just that they don't employ many physicists.

Rahul Basu said...

Sourendu: Why Bell Labs survived or for that matter why they supported basic (i.e no immediate applications) research need not have a sociological or socio-economic reason. Sometimes, just having a visionary at the top changes things. To some extent, that is how the Tata group supported TIFR and IISc. I doubt they got any benefits from it but someone there (was it JRD?) felt that basic science should be supported (Bhabha's not inconsiderable push would have helped). Of course they don't provide much nowadays as I understand.

Rahul: Yes, for the same reason as above, I think there are still people who believe basic research is good for society. I am however surprised at the number 9% that the article quotes as the fraction working in the US in the 'Government' or publicly funded sector. Given the large number of universities, many of whom do good quality research, this number seems rather low.

gaddeswarup said...

Rahul Basu,
About 9 perecent, I wonder whether Shapin is worrying about the reliability of science produced and of scientists. There are similar remarks in a review By Orr
of Shapin's book "The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation":
"Shapin sees the morality of scientists as part of a larger issue: the extent to which the personal qualities of scientists matter in the practice of science. His concern here derives from the claims about modern society of Max Weber and his disciples. These men maintained that one mark of the modern was a decrease in the significance of the personal and familiar and an increase in the significance of the impersonal and bureaucratic. But when it comes to that most characteristic modern activity—science —Shapin isn’t so sure. Instead, he concludes that personal qualities like virtue, trust, reliability, and familiarity continue to matter in science, perhaps more than ever."
From the review of another book of Shapin "The Other Side of Science"
by Jenny Uglow "A central premise in this collection—an approach that Shapin defines as “historical naturalism”—is that all scientific work, in its many diverse aspects, is not only historically situated but also spatially located."
I have read only the reviews, both in NYRB and not the books.

N. Sukumar said...

Another example besides Bell Labs would be General Electric. As to why they survived and supported basic research, I think the answer has at least something to do with two words: monopoly and size. These two factors gave them the wherewithal to not base every corporate decision on quarterly reports, a luxury that even the largest of today's global corporations can not afford. I think this (in addition to having a visionary at the top) might also account for the Tata's past funding of basic science in India. (Some might see this hypothesis as running counter to the capitalist economic tenet of "competition spurs innovation" but I think that argument confuses technological innovation, which is essentially short-term, with basic scientific research, which is for the long-haul).