Perhaps the measure of the current importance of science is the amount of space devoted to it in the Sunday papers. On that basis, it grades somewhere between holiday travel and fashion, a considerable improvement on any status it might have had only a few years back. Science and scientists are news, in a way they were not in even the recent past. Heroic days of research passed whilst the scientist was still an unknown, innocent figure—a cross between an Oxford don and the Toytown inventor. Now, the cult of personality builds up for us pictures in the newspapers of powerful, shadowy figures to whose tune the politicians dance. Disarmament negotiations halt whilst experts disagree; government scientists advise, and the Cabinet acts; avuncular professors flit across the television screen, and Britain will enter the space race. Names evoke faint responses only: Penny, Cockcroft, Zuckerman, Teller, Wiesner, Lysenko. These men make decisions that affect us all. They speak in the name of science, and their words become gospel: only an expert can disagree with an expert.
It took nearly 300 years of scientific revolution to bring us to this point; previously, the scientist could be popularly accepted as a figure not dissimilar to the artist, involved in a world of private discovery and creation which, on fortunate occasions, could be seen to bear some resemblance to our own. True, even then he operated according to mystic, immutable rules of his own, and his discoveries were different in kind from those of the painter or musician. But, roughly speaking, until the last war it was still possible for society to regard scientific advance as in some way peripheral to the main stream of human development. Important, and springing from an economic substructure, while art, or historical interpretation, are ideologically based—but none the less marginal to the major problems that concerned socialists.
For socialists, it is of increasing urgency to understand what the scientist is doing, and why. It is no longer good enough to equate scientists with history dons, doing interesting but subsidiary research, partly because of the sheer scale of the expenditure involved in scientific research, and partly because of the intimate relationship that exists between the scientist’s findings and his social milieu. It is
The institutions for the organisation and control of research and development in this country have evolved in response to limited demands and piecemeal reforms. They have failed to cope with what has been described as the exponential growth of science. Roughly speaking, the corpus of scientific knowledge, and the expense of scientific research, double every ten years. This doubling represents both new information in old subjects, and the emergence of totally new fields of research. It is difficult to express this increase in absolute amounts, but a miscellany of figures can give an impression of the scale involved. It has been calculated that 99 per cent of all scientists who have ever existed are alive today. A journal devoted to publishing the abstracts alone of new papers in the chemical sciences now runs to 13,000 pages annually, exclusive of indices and cross-references; ten years ago it was only half the size. Ten years ago scarcely a university in Britain taught biochemistry as a first degree course; for a new university not to do so now would stamp it as incurably reactionary, whilst last year more than 4,000 biochemists, the higher echelons only of the discipline, met in Moscow for an International Congress. Scarcely a month passes without the announcement of yet another new scientific periodical, representing some hitherto unrecognised subspecialisation. Spending on research and development in Britain has doubled in the last seven years, and now runs at £500 million annually. In real terms, the USA, and probably the USSR, each spend between eight and 20 times as much.
This is not a company chairman’s report, and it cannot be assumed that this mushroom growth is necessarily desirable, although most scientists will rattle off figures of this sort with pride. It carries with it grave internal contradictions. The increasing amount of available information means that in order to keep up-to-date even within his own discipline, a growing amount of a scientist’s time must be spent in analysing other people’s work. Already many research workers will spend one or even two days a week like this; clearly the process cannot be continued indefinitely. But this is to assume that all the published research is even worthy of being studied. Much of it is, of course; it represents a steady increase in useful knowledge, a constant flow of new, vital information. But only a small proportion of this great flood of research is so productive. A great deal is repetitive.
Even more strikes the outsider as stamp-collecting, the accumulation of trivial data for its own sake. Open the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and you are confronted with a series of papers mapping the properties, formulae, melting points, crystal structures, bond lengths, steric organisation, racemic structures, tautomeric transformations, electron density distribution and molecular reorganisation during reactions of what—yet another complex material isolated from, say, a Peruvian earthworm? This sort of paper occurs time and time again in all fields of research. But in science it differs from the historian’s study of mast design in the French navy in the 17th century primarily in that it costs a great deal of money to perform.
Whether such research is done, and is published, depends on factors largely outside the personality of the particular scientist studying Peruvian earthworms. An Everest complex alone is not enough. Somewhere along the line someone has made the decision to support him, and a Journal has made the decision to publish him. The second half of the problem is easy. Scientific expansion has brought in its train a blossoming of scientific publishing houses, and the constant birth of new journals designed to capture a small piece of an already overburdened market. The entrepreneurial activities of Pergamon, Elsevier, Academic Press, would have offended the chastity of the Victorian scientist, unaccustomed to being solicited to publish. Today, the rat race demands an ever-increasing volume of publication; promotion may depend on the sheer weight of reprints the candidate can offer.