Nick Nielsen

Apr 13, 2021

6 min read

Science as an Institution and as an Ideal

Institutional Science, Big Science, and Personal Science

Science as an institution today consists of colleges and universities, which are in part funded by government money that is parceled out in the form of grants and loans, decided upon by numerous committees (themselves institutions in turn), which money is often funneled through additional committees once it arrives at a given institution. (It is well known among academics that one must attempt to get a grant twice the size that one needs, since the institution is going to take half of it.) Individual laboratories are also institutions within institutions, whether they are within the government, within a university, or within private industry.

There are numerous scientific societies, many of them distinguished by long histories and eminent alumni, which are formally organized as institutions for the advancement of science and also to assist individual scientists in the pursuit of research goals as well as career advancement. There are student associations with disciplinary specializations, which advocate for early career researchers.

There are also publishers of journals and books (often purchased by university libraries) who accept manuscripts from individuals frequently employed in institutions of higher education, and which when published are frequently read by both students and instructors at institutions of higher education. Students attend these institutions and read these materials in order to obtain a credential provided by these institutions, which gives them an institutional stamp of approval, and some of them will go on to themselves become instructors in this system of higher education.

A battery of subsidiary institutions support and facilitate these primary scientific institutions, and the whole system ripples out through the economy like Adam Smith’s famous example of a day laborer’s woollen coat (I quote this passage in The Technology of Living). The many and various institutions of science as an institution thus cannot be cleanly separated from wider society, as any attempt to isolate them would involve a sorites paradox: where do we draw the line between economic, social, and cultural activities that are scientific and those that are not?

Science as an ideal has no institutions to support it; science as an ideal exists only in the minds of a number of individuals to aspire to scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. The scientific ideal serves as a norm against which individuals and even some institutions measure their progress in scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. This ideal is not about the particular details of the discipline to which any given scientist may contribute, but rather it addresses a broader vision of the conduct of an ideal life in science, or even an ideal scientific institution, which puts scientific truth before any other consideration, and never fears to speak out on behalf of impartial and objective inquiry.

While science as an institution nominally supports science as an ideal, we all know that science as an ideal often finds itself in conflict with science as an institution. Institutions inevitably come to be dominated by individuals and their personalities, or by cliques of individuals. Ultimately, cliques in control of scientific institutions do far more damage to the scientific ideal than even the most boorish personalities. Individuals eventually die, allowing science to progress one funeral at a time; cliques can impose a stranglehold upon an institution for generations, and often do.

Must science be institutionalized and thus subject to these human, all-too-human frailties and pettiness? It may well be inevitable that science becomes institutionalized, and not only institutionalized, but institutionalized at the largest scale as “big science,” which increasingly plays a prominent role in contemporary scientific knowledge. In many disciplines all the low-hanging fruit of scientific knowledge has been plucked, so that the further growth of scientific knowledge requires coordinated effort over periods of time that can be measured in the overlapping careers of multiple scientists, and this means that “big science” becomes increasingly unavoidable as scientific knowledge advances.

Big science is a kind of informal institution; most involved in big science understand intuitively how it works, i.e., that they are involving themselves with a scientific research program that requires the resources of government, industry, and educational institutions working together over a period of time that is likely to exceed the entire length of an individual’s career as a scientist. A major scientific instrument constructed within the paradigm of big science will almost certainly have a formal institutional structure — think of the LHC, for example — but such big science institutions exist within a larger informal institution — in the case of the LHC, this larger informal institution is the coordinated effort of many teams of scientists at many particle accelerators to elaborate the Standard Model, whether through refining and extending it, or through finding some inadequacy in it, and thus setting physics on a new path.

Even particular scientific research programs — say, to continue with the theme of particle physics, the research program into supersymmetry, or string theory — transcend most formal institutions, in the sense that they are expressed in a number of distinct institutional contexts, even as they find their place within the even larger informal institution of particle physics and big science. Scientific research programs are informal institutions greater than most formal institutions, but less comprehensive than big science, or science itself.

We can see, then, that big science is constituted by a network of formal and informal institutions that overlap and interact. These many institutions, both formal and informal, also overlap and interact with science as an ideal. For science as an ideal is also, like science as an institution, not one thing only, but many things — playing many roles in many different lives. Within the ideal of science there are ideals for science itself — the idealization of the scientific method, the final form of which is out of reach, but nevertheless can be more closely approximated with each scientific effort — as well as ideals for individuals practicing science, and ideals for scientific institutions.

It is possible that some of the ideas of ideal science are more applicable in one life than in another, and more applicable in one institution than in another. One scientist may see himself as a living embodiment of the scientific method, another as a personal exemplification of the ideal scientist, and a third as a loyal and dedicated member of a scientific institution (a true believer in institutions, as I described years ago in A Third Temperament). Thus the multiplicity of scientific ideals is interwoven with the multiplicity of scientific institutions. And, just as there are formal and informal scientific institutions, there are formal and informal scientific ideals. The scientific method, to the extent that it is explicitly codified, is a formal ideal of science. The aspiration to pure scientific impartiality and objectivity is an informal ideal of science.

Formal institutions, needless to say, favor formal ideals; informal institutions grow out of an intuitive appreciation of informal ideals. An explicitly constituted institution can codify the explicitly formulated codification of scientific method into its institutional imperatives, for example, by requiring all projects superintended by the institution to embody some particular concrete expression of the scientific method. The implicit ideals of informal scientific ideals cannot be adopted in any meaningful way by an institution, even if that institution authentically abides by the ideals of science.

In all of this there is something hopeful and something dispiriting. Not myself belonging to the third temperament, it is difficult for me to see institutions as anything other than a betrayal of the individual and of the ideals of the individual. All science, as I see it, ultimately grows from the root of the informal scientific ideal, which has moved individuals to greater effort, to greater achievement, to greater knowledge, and to greater rigor. The growth of institutional science and big science militates against this personal ideal. That is the dispiriting aspect.

The encouraging aspect, on the other hand, is the knowledge that into every generation some individuals with the authentic scientific temperament are born, who respond naturally to scientific ideals. These individuals can and will further render the scientific ideal explicit, and the extent to which it can be rendered explicit, it can be adopted by institutions. Even if these institutions are corrupt, they will become irrelevant if they stagnate. In order not to stagnate, they must draw upon those who are authentically inspired by scientific ideals, who produce the explicit formulations of that ideal that can be adopted by institutions. So there is hope, after a fashion, even if there is also despair.