AGB2009: science and the nation state

This part of the AGB2009 series (see the presentation)
AGB2009: science and the nation state


The relationship between power and scientific inquiry has never been easy.

Socrates, Galileo, Einstein, Wiener: dissenting was part of the creative process that is at the basis of scientific discovery .

But at least from the “Encyclopédie” on, a third element was added- the nation state.

Most subsidies and support to science, notably basic research, are linked to the XVIII century idea of “nation state”.

When, few decades ago, members of the U.S. Congress and media criticized the growing trade imbalance with Japan, one of the largest exporters from Japan was… IBM Japan.

And this is not really news: already in 1945 Vannevar Bush was calling for a different way of managing basic and applied research: “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.”

But, thanks to the disintermediation made possible by the New Media, his approach is even more relevant now.


Science is not built in a vacuum. Despite what some scientists say, usually after mingling with the losing side in a war, the “political neutrality” of science has never been proved.

And the complexity of science was increased during the XX century.

XIX century physics was within the reach of a single company, but WWII showed the “competitive advantage” of democracies in managing “Big Science” projects, well beyond the Manhattan Project.

Winston Churchill said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. But is democratic control of science possible in a single country?

In the 1950s, the “Crossroads” testing in the Pacific involved resources beyond the reach of most countries, while more recently the genome project opened the Pandora’s box on intellectual property rights.

While some of these issues have been discussed in the GMN2009 series, few more items were only marginally discussed.

Post-WWII innovations in telecommunications, computing, and business management altered the usual relationship between a nation state and its corporate citizens.

Can science be national? What is the real difference between basic and applied research? How do you communicate and control science in a democratic world?


The bibliography spans across few decades:

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945 (available online for free)
WWII showed a new dimension in science: hyperspecialization, creating a new role: the scientific manager
Joel Best, “Stat-Spotting”, 2008 University of California Press
Part 1, pagg. 3-13; Part 3, pagg. 103-116
our media are filled with data and statistics- did you ever wonder if they make any sense?
Robert Kaplan, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?”, The Atlantic Monthly, December 1997 (available online for free)
Nick Turse “The Complex”, 2008 Faber & Faber
Chapter 1, pagg. 1-18; Part VIII, pagg. 251-275
while I disagree with some of the assertions of the author, few books give a concise view of the complexity of the relationship between basic/applied research and our everyday life
John Cornwell, “Hitler’s Scientists”, 2003 Viking/Penguin
Chapter 1, pagg. 1-17; Part Eight, pagg. 427-467
An interesting analysis on the relationship between power and science in WWII

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