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December 22, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 12


The practice of science has evolved rapidly over the past century, writes Harvard University professor Steven Shapin.

By historical measures, science is still a relatively new profession. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, Steven Shapin outlines the transformation of science from a calling borne of intellectual curiosity to a highly specialized profession that requires intensive education and training. Before the twentieth century, many of the world’s most accomplished scientists were “gentleman amateurs,” he reminds readers, noting that Darwin’s seminal journey on the Beagle cost his father £1,200. Even by that point in time, disciplines such as physics and chemistry had already progressed well beyond the grasp of amateurs. Within a generation, science had moved into laboratories, spurred in part by the growth of research universities such as Johns Hopkins University.

Science became firmly ensconced as a profession in contemporary society with the rise of what Shapin calls the “industrial scientist.” This came about as private firms established R&D laboratories such as Bell Labs at the same time that the government created agencies to harness the nation’s scientific and technological prowess for the Cold War. While the Manhattan Project epitomized government mobilization of the science community to achieve a specific national security objective, the postwar period saw a vast expansion of government’s permanent infrastructure for the promotion and procurement of science, including the creation of the National Science Foundation and NASA.

With the twin explosions of information technology and globalization in the latter decades of the twentieth century, a new model emerged, which Shapin calls the “scientific entrepreneur.” While science clearly had its share of entrepreneurs in the mid-twentieth century — names like Intel co-founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore spring to mind — the growth of Silicon Valley and the rise of venture capital firms led to a proliferation of start-up companies founded around a single scientific or technological innovation. Privately funded entrepreneurs such as biologist Craig Venter tackled challenges such as the sequencing of the human genome. More recently, there has been a rush of interest and venture capital into green technologies that might provide clean sources of energy. Today the scientific entrepreneur coexists alongside the industrial scientist, and many scientists now move among academia, start-up firms, and large-scale corporate or government science labs over the course of their careers.

Read more about Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life.

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