Technology Trends

Industrial science

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In the early twentieth century, academic science was not the only institutional model for research. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, there has developed an alternative model in which scientific workers were employed directly, on a full-time basis, to do research.

Firms in advanced industries such as chemical manufacture had, of course, always benefited from scientific discoveries, and often employed people with a scientific training as works managers or process controllers.

But in the German dyestuffs manufacturers took a decisive step forward by setting up their own company laboratories, where fully qualified academic scientists were employed to undertake independent investigations in the hope of discovering new products and processes.

Industrial science was thus established as a major instrument of innovation in all science-based industries, such as chemical engineering electronics and aeronautical engineering.

A parallel development also took place in the various government agencies such as astronomical observatories, geological surveys, bureau of weights and measures. and public health inspectorates which provided routine technical services for the public benefit.

The work of these organizations was usually based upon scientific samples and was carried out by people with scientific qualifications: when they were faced with novel technical problems, or areas of basic ignorance they naturally moved towards a research attitude and acquired specific research functions.

Although this sort of governmental science differed in many details from more commercially oriented industrial research, there were such structural similarities between, say, the National Physical Laboratory on the one hand. and the General Electric Company’s laboratory on the other, that the term ‘industrial may be applied to both.

The most striking characteristics of industrial science as an institutional form were those in which it differed from academic science. Its establishments were not normally sited in universities, and its staff members had no direct educational responsibilities.

A typical industrial research laboratory was not a quasi-autonomous organization. but was usually a bureaucratic sub-division of sonic much larger non-scientific organization, such as an industrial firm or government department.

Individual staff scientists, however senior, were not free to follow their own bent in the choice of research projects. but were expected — and at times firmly directed – to work towards the goals of the superior organization.

Their duty was to invent a new commercial product, map a specific area of the country, or perfect a new technique of measurement, not simply to acquire knowledge.

In any case, the results of their research had to be put at the disposal of the employing organization, and might even be kept secret for commercial or military reasons.

Since the training of research workers was not a specific function of industrial science, employees were recruited from academia on comp Kuon of a bachelor’s or doctor’s degree.

Their subsequent career would depend more on local organizational considerations, such as the quality of their technical performance, or managerial competence, than on public reputation within the scientific community and was subject to the same administrative regulations and management decisions as any other employees of the firm or government.

In fact the ‘laboratory’ or ‘establishment’ as a whole would be structured internally, and directed, according to the standard procedures of the parent body – that is through a bureaucratic hierarchy of ‘sections’ and ‘divisions’ up to the very top.

From this brief sketch. it is obvious that industrial science was very different from academic science as an institutional form. It had a different internal sociology different incentives and rewards for the individual, and a different role in society.

It was scarcely to be considered a distinct social institution, associated with an autonomous ‘community’ but mainly derived from, and referred to its various parent institutions in society at large. In other words. although it embodied the scientific notion of research and drew heavily on the contents of academic science.

it was designed around the instrumental conception of science as a means of achieving particular practical ends with little reference to the conception of science as a process of discovery.

By the beginning of the Second World War, industrial science had developed into a distinct way of life embodied in such stable and successful instituttions as the Bell Telephone Laboratories or the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which employed a considerable proportion of the scientists.

It played an indispensable part in the economic affairs, of all industrialized countries. This way of life is becoming the dominant form in the collectivized science of our times.

Pure science — and its applications

The distinction between the academic and industrial tunics of research is alien strongly emphasized in any account of the societal function of science. Until the last few years this distinction was not merely institutional; it was even reinforced by status symbols, such as membership of learned societies.

In Britain. for example. academic physicists would belong to the Physical Society, which published a learned journal and rewarded its most esteemed members with prizes: industrial physicists joined the Institute of Physics, which was concerned with professional qualifications and conditions of employment.

In other countries, where engineering was not so stigmatized, this snobbish crentiation may not have been so pronounced, but the distinction in principle between the two institutional models was seldom forgotten. In reality, this distinction was not as sharp as many people believed.

Thus, for example. they were not differentiated epistemologically or methodologically; industrial science used just the same theories, methods, concepts and terminology as academic science.

Industrial scientists went through the same educational institutions as academic scientists, and often had experience of arcade research at quite a high level of senionty.

Industrial scientists often sought recognition front the academic community, and published papers were the primary criterion for promotion in many branches of the scientific civil service.

Indeed, in disciplines such as agriculture the research was mainly done in organizations where scientists were relatively free to follow the norms of academic science within a formally bureaucratic framework.

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Nevertheless, in spite of the radical transformation of the social relations of science and technology in the past few decades, a distinction between ‘ pure’ and ‘ applied’ science still lingers on.

This distinction is riot at all the same as between the ‘research’ and ‘development’ components of & D’, since the work of an ‘applied scientist in an industrial laboratory might be directed as much towards the explanation of general phenomena, or the determination of basic data, as towards testing and improving a specific product or design.

Nor can applied science be simply equated with ‘technology’, which almost always contains a large ingredient of tacit knowledge and traditional craft lore.

Although engineers make use of a great deal of scientific knowledge, they are not Just ‘applied scientists’ in their professional work. As the epithet ‘pure’ suggests. this distinction is essentially ideological.

It asserts the independence of academic science from all material or social considerations, and proclaims the virtue of doing research for its own sake’. It repudiates the instrumental conception of science, and thus preserves the academic ethos.

The implicit argument is that although the ultimate social value of science comes through its applications, these are unforeseeable. and must not in any way influence the process of scientific discovery, which follows its own peculiar laws.

In other words. according to this ideology, the internal sociology of the scientific community and the external sociology of ‘science and technology’ are to be considered quite separate topics for meta scientific study.

The institutional forms, the internal sociology and the societal relations of the elements of this system can no longer be classified by their position along the traditional axis from pure science to its applications.

In any case, it was never philosophically or psychologically convincing to insist that the fundamental character of research depends on the supposed purpose for which it is undertaken.

In practice, science is mostly ‘problem-soling’, and it usually makes very little difference whether the problem to be solved is a question arising out oldie paradigmatic research programme of an academic discipline or whether it is chosen because it happens to be relevant to some practical human need.

If the question were, for example, how the roots of plants absorb minerals front the soil, would it make any significant difference to the method of investigation or to the validity of a discovery claim, whether or not this particular problem was being studied because it might have some significance for the use of artificial fertilizers or the growth of crops on saline soils

At the level of ‘ laboratory life”, straightforward methodological and conceptual considerations determine the nature of the research process and the attitudes of those involved in it, whether it is as ‘pure’ as cosmology or as ‘applied’ as the search for a cure for the common cold.

 

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