What drives science?
Well the question has been asked.  (Freeman J. Dyson Is Science Mostly Driven by Ideas or by Tools? SCIENCE vol. 338 no. 6113 December 14. 2013 page 1426) Of course the question as asked limits the response.  If one or the other must be “mostly” the cause, then there cannot be a third option.  To my paranoia that is reason enough to look for a third option that might be the important one – the one that is being obscured.

My own answer would depend on when you asked me.  As a child I would have said that of course it is the ideas that drive science.  The tools are constructed to pursue the ideas.  Galileo improved the telescope in order to look at the sky.  He must have known already that there were things there to be looked at to resolve questions at hand.  And he scored marvelously well. 

Later I would have said that it was the tools.  Iconically, if not actually, the British member of the Royal Society was a man of some influence and leisure.  He would have a servant who would work long and hard to build some sort of contraption to measure this or that.  Together they would do the measurements which in due course would be presented to the Society as the work of the master. 

In fact it was not only the Brits.  Mendel, who worked out the laws of genetics may have had a gardener who knew more than Mendel.  In the event Mendel described seven variables in the pea plant, such things as flower color and stem length.  The genes for these came in pairs, one inherited from each parent, and could be dominant or recessive so that plants with one of each gene looked like plants that had two of the same kind; the dominant form.  And the genes were inherited independently.  The hooker is, I am told, that there are seven pairs of chromosomes in the pea.  Mendel selected one kind of gene from each chromosome so his results worked out nicely.  The suspicion is that some clever gardener knew more about it than Mendel did and suggested the characteristics to keep an eye on.  It seems suspicious, but I’m not so sure.  The idea is very abstract, far more like the mental workings of a monk like Mendel than a gardener however alert.

Indeed the scenario of the hard working technician doing the thinking for the less gifted master doesn’t necessarily hold.  If the tech built a machine to do the measurements, then the tech probably knew as much as the master and indeed may have been brighter.  He also may have been educated.  In those days in Britain the eldest son tended to get everything.  As a second son of a second son your means might be quite modest even if you were from a highly influential family.  But you might have gone to the best schools.  And in the end the question is not whether the science is driven by the master or the servant but whether by ideas.  Even if the idea came from the tech, it’s still an idea.

Going back to my paranoia I have the impulse to say science is driven by the government.  As Robert Sheldrake points out in Science Set Free, there is division of church and state but no division of science and state.  The state decides what to fund.  Sure they have scientists work at it, but at the end of the day it is the politicians who hold the purse strings.  So science tells us what the government wants us to hear, although within limits set by the real world.  Big business gets into research, too.  And again there are those who suggest that results, particularly regarding the efficacy of drugs, may get selectively noticed because of the profit motive.  In either case science is driven by money.

But what would be proper?  I say science should be driven by the data, by the facts.  That should trump any other issue.  All right, all right.  I have data in which I am very interested that suggests developing new tools and having new insights but those are not forthcoming yet.  So perhaps my view is distorted. 

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