Among the more influential truisms about science today is that it is essential for technological — and thus economic — progress. It is fitting, then, that the apparent slowing of American innovation has fueled a debate about the importance of science and the need for the federal government to support it.
Indeed, there is growing interest across the political spectrum in revitalizing American innovation, raising questions about how best to allocate scarce resources. What kinds of research should we support? Who should decide — government or industry or the scientific community? Should we emphasize science or technology? Should we steer research toward solving practical problems or simply leave science free to pursue its own aims?
When asking these questions, we typically take for granted that scientific research is necessary for innovation. But while it may be a truism today, this contention is in fact a modern one, best known from the writings of Francis Bacon. And it rests on an important claim about — and, too often, a misunderstanding of — the relationship between science and technology.
Bacon was among the first thinkers to argue that scientific knowledge should not be pursued as an end in itself but rather as a means to an end — the improvement of the human condition. Science, in other words, is essentially useful, especially by enabling the technological mastery of nature. Such Baconian rhetoric is so familiar to us today that it likely passes unnoticed. Scientists have long invoked the practical fruits of their trade, especially when seeking public recognition or funding for science. As historian of science Peter Dear wrote in The Intelligibility of Nature (2006):