The State of the Scientist

Steven Shapin in Seed:

Scientists, perhaps to a greater degree than any other sector of society, get to define what the world is like. They may not always be the most highly rewarded people in our communities, but they are among the most influential: When reality speaks, it speaks through them, and what we know about the world, we know because we have found grounds to recognize their competence and to trust them or the institutions they represent.

Our understanding of who these men and women are is central to the authority of modern science, and if, as seems to be the case, there are emerging problems with that authority, then a clarification of the scientist’s identity is in order. It’s not so easy, however, to know exactly who the scientist is. Public perception of the scientist probably owes much to the idea of mastering something known as the “scientific method” (even though there is no consensus on what exactly this consists of), but we also define scientists through some notion of integrity — an independent voice speaking truth to power. So any perceived problems concerning scientists’ moral makeup are of great consequence: Scientists without credibility are culturally impotent, and science without credibility is a meaningless enterprise.

In recent times, and especially over the past quarter century, scientific integrity has become a live issue in public culture — think of the drumbeat of reports on commercially and politically induced bias and violations of research independence. Medical-journal editors despair of finding reviewers without financial ties to Big Pharma. The New York Times and the Associated Press now routinely inform readers not just about what scientists claim but also about their sources of commercial research funding and whether or not they act as consultants to, or accept speaking fees from, industry. It’s become a truism — a point of pride for some, of anxiety for others — that academia and industry as scientific work environments have converged in all sorts of ways. At the same time, these ties and convergences have elicited diverse reactions from within the scientific community: Just as there are scientists wholly comfortable doing their work in industry or with industrial support, there are others who take the responsibility of defending scientific integrity and who seek to foreground commercial bias or government interference as public issues. Some scientists speak for reality from within the big oil companies; others claim that to do such a thing with integrity is impossible and speak up for the environment from an advertised position of institutional independence.