Science, Bacon, Technology, Universities

Terence Kealey (VC of The University of Buckingham) wrote in the October 2005 issue of Prospect on Bacon’s Shadow.

To summarize the article, wrapped around a mixture of information and disinformation on Francis Bacon, Kealey critiques two of Bacon’s ideas:

  • That science leads to technology which leads to wealth
  • That science is a public good best or most created by government (or kings, which in a modern context translates as rich philanthropists, a point which Kealey conveniently obscures).

As I read I was struck my a mixture of déjà vu and dismay. Déjà vu because the idea that thinking and knowledge is not at the root of human progress is somewhat perennial. Dismay because the argument is false and has such nasty consequences if accepted.

To argue against this model in which knowledge causes power via technology, and funded by luxury money, Kealey first seeks to show that science does not result from activities in luxury entities such as universities (an odd position for a University VC: no idea how he explained that to his research staff), but rather is created as a byproduct (waste product?) of profit-oriented technology development.

Kealey’s demonstration that technology does not flow from science, but rather the inverse consists of two examples. Examples which i believe are false. Let’s recapitulate: He claims that “Radio astronomy and molecular biology both emerged from technology not science”. How so: well Karl Jansky discovered extra-terrestrial radio energy while not working at a university, but rather while on Bell Lab’s books as an engineer. Ergo, he technology created the science. Apart from this being one element of an entire field, let’s look at Jansky’s employer: Bell Labs was a government-ordained monopoloy. At one of the worst order.To cite just a single example of the bad consequences of Ma-Bell, they made the internet illegal because you couldn’t connect a modem to the phone line!1

Kealey’s next claim: that Molecular biology was born from technology is even more spurious. He claims that as Oswald Avery showed that “sugar DNA” regulates inheritance as part of his “applied” work on pneumococcus, all of molecular biology is not science but technology driven and, therefore, doesn’t need patronage. Of course Avery didn’t show how DNA acts as a replicator: that was done by two young men in a university, one on a government scholarship, and one on a private post-doc.

Now, to be clear, I do not believe that science needs to be supported by an involuntary tax. Nor that government needs a monopoly on science. Rather the opposite: I agree with Bacon that science creates technology and from these both flow wealth and well-being. But doing science (and technology) requires super-spare money: money not needed for today’s food, or even for tomorrow’s seed crop, but spare beyond even these needs. With a provider with such manifest superfluity, science won’t happen. That’s a prediction.

If modern governments take so much tax that only they have super-spare money, then they must (if we wish to have progress) be compelled (by the pressure of their citizen’s) to invest in pure research.

If governments will relent on tax, I am confident that history will repeat itself in the form of modern equivalents of the Carnegies and Mellons, quite likely not via the vehicle of publicly-funded technology and teaching oriented Universities such as Buckingham. But either way, if entities with super-spare money do not exist or do not fund pure research, you won’t see science, or technology, or wealth and well-being.

1. cf: Carter-phone FCC decision (maybe having Colin Powell’s son running the FFC will such will-full freedom-loving decisions by the FCC in the future and leave them mired in wardrobe malfunctions?)

US Amazon

“The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Norton Critical Editions)” (James D. Watson)

UK Amazon

“The Double Helix: Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Penguin Joint Venture Readers S.)” (James D. Watson)


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