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  • The Contract between Society and Science:Changes and Challenges1
  • Wolfgang Rohe

political events such as the brexit vote in the united kingdom, the presidential election in the United States of America, or growing populist movements in a number of European states have alarmed Western scientific communities, especially taking into account the increasingly critical, even dismissive, response of society to fact-based science. Framed as a "post-truth" paradigm, the concern is with a politicized public that is alleged to no longer sustain its long established "love affair with science" (Dennis Snower, personal communication, October 9, 2016). Put differently, the concern is "that the axes in the relation of science and society that had been relatively stable for over two centuries are currently shifting" (Strohschneider 2016, 60) with one result being a less robust "public trust in science" (Prewitt 2016). Regarding biological and medical sciences, Bruce Alberts et al. (2014, 5773) state that "the current system contains systemic flaws." But if these conjectures have merit, there must be deeper currents at play than the public's recent populist turn. It is more likely that a problem of much more complex origins has risen to the surface. "Post truth" is a serious issue, but it is only one component of the problem that shakes the grounding of patterns and practices of scholarly knowledge to which we have become accustomed.


If one wants to describe in greater detail the deeper change that scholarly knowledge is subject to, it is necessary first to explain which [End Page 739] factors were responsible for the relatively stable concept of "scholarly knowledge" that we have learned to take for granted. There is a broad consensus in the history of science that Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay, "Science, The Endless Frontier," marks a far-reaching rejustification of the role, function, and legitimation of science in modern Western societies. It seems that the importance of Bush's justification for science is similar to Wilhelm von Humboldt's justification of the modern university, and they use similar arguments.

In his remarkable essay entitled "Saving Science," Daniel Sarewitz (2016) recently revisited the crucial role Vannevar Bush played in the familiar conceptualization of science, calling Bush's key assertion "a bald-faced but beautiful lie" (6). Bush's formulation, according to Sarewitz, is as follows: "Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown" (6). Indeed, this quote offers in a nutshell the concept of the scientific enterprise with all its core elements: "free play of free intellects," "own choice of subjects," and "curiosity for exploration."

This, however, is only one of Bush's key assumptions. The other is of equal importance, constituting virtually the flip side of the coin.

Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past.

(Bush 1945, chap. 1, introduction)

That sounds like utopia. Bush is claiming that research is the key to solving societal problems, that it is the guarantor of progress and innovation. He posits that "free play" and "own choice of subjects" define the best method for reaching progress and innovation. Since then the two have belonged together, at least when it comes to justifying the status and goals of science in society. Claiming that the [End Page 740] "beautiful lie insists that scientists ought to be accountable only to themselves," as Sarewitz (2016, 34) does, is too narrow a perspective. Science cannot be legitimated by referring only to curiosity or by referring only to utility. Curiosity and utility were unified in the claim that the first is basic to the latter, giving us the powerful formula of basic science. Though not without tensions and frictions, in light of the enormous expansion and reach of science since the 1950s, this formula has been incredibly successful.

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In his book Truth and Usefulness, David...


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