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Space and Elitism

I had an interesting conversation with a coworker about an interview he saw with actor Christopher Reeve this past week. I didn’t see the interview myself, but apparently he took a poke at the American scientific establisment for no longer producing anything useful — in effect, for increasingly focusing on pure science rather than practical applications. His conclusion was that America will not be able to maintain technological leadership in the future, because we have lost the motivation to develop new technologies while other countries are moving ahead in this direction.

This dovetailed with something astronaut Bonnie Dunbar talked about in a presentation to the Houston Mars Society last week: China and India have been producing more engineering graduates over the past decade or so than the United States (even adjusting for population). This suggests a tortoise-and-hare situation, in which these countries (through sheer force of numbers) may overtake us in technological leadership.

It also fits with what many space advocates bemoan with regard to NASA’s mission — the agency justifies its activities and projects primarily on the basis of science for science’s sake, and takes a dim view of applications of that science in what it regards as its exclusive domain. For instance, NASA is happy to spend billions of dollars building a laboratory in space where they can study the medical effects of prolonged spaceflight, but is loath to actually plan and propose any mission where that science might actually come into use. This same mindset, in more subtle form, underlies the strenuous objection to space tourists visiting the station — it’s perfectly acceptable to send “scientist-astronauts” of dubious scientific value into space on the Shuttle (or to ISS via Soyuz), but sending tourists along on Shuttle flights is unthinkable and sending them to ISS is strongly frowned upon, as if it somehow sullies the purity of the image of astronauts and NASA projects as being science-focused and above such banal, real-world interests as entertainment and enjoyment.

Granted, this is partly motivated by the instinct of all bureaucracies to protect their turf, but to my eye this is drowned out by the ivory-tower scientist’s elitist disdain for applied versus “pure” science. Such a view echoes the “mind-body” problem: science is of the mind, and thus pure, while technology is of the flesh, and thus corrupt.

And while I’m taking a poke here at NASA, it is only to illustrate a mindset which has infected society in a wide variety of fields. For example, it’s more “respectable” to study economics than to be an entrepreneur, to map the genome than to modify it, and to produce hairsplitting critiques of literature than to actually write it.

It used to be the case that America valued the application of science as much as (or perhaps a bit more than) the expansion of it. Nowadays, I wonder if we have the same level of willingness to get our hands dirty with practical applications. This is one reason why, despite my attitude towards NASA and government vs. private programs, I support establishing manned missions to the Moon or Mars as the agency’s new long-term focus, and allowing increased private involvement in NASA activities generally. Such a shift in the agency could shift with it the Wissenschaft über alles attitude, and thereby open up the door to space as a realm for everyday human activities instead of an elite laboratory for pure science.

4 comments to Space and Elitism

  • kert

    This so reminds me of Asimov’s Foundation ( the original book ), Encyclopedists vs. Mayors. Read it, if you havent yet.

  • Matthew

    There are far more people in this country (engineers, scientists, etc.) working in applied sciences than pure sciences. There will always be a greater incentive to pursue applied science since the potential for financial gain is greater. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of pure scientific research. I’m afraid to burst your bubble but a lot of ‘practical’ technologies were developed as a result of pure scientific research. Where do you think the web was created? I guess you don’t open your history books much but a lot of what you probably call ‘engineering’ today was at one time pioneered by pure scientists.

  • Kip Dyer

    I’m afraid that I have to agree with Matthew, here, Mr. James. As Heinlein said, pure research has always paid off in the end, handsomely. Now, I’ll admit it is most often serendipitous payoff, but that’s just the way science works. Besides, the “pure” science versus “applied” science division is a false dichotomy. Two examples? The LASER/MASER and the solid state transistor. Both predicted by “pure” scientists long before anyone could begin to think of what they might actually be used for.

  • T.L. James

    Don’t get me wrong — I see the benefits to “pure science”. I personally think there needs to be a balance to the two: science should inform and inspire technology, and an eye on potential technological applications should serve to keep “pure science” from getting inbred and isolated.

    What I am pointing out here is the tendency to fetishize “pure” science as an end in itself, while looking down on applications as somehow unclean or low-class.