Sarewitz, a geologist turned political writer, spent almost four years in Washington, DC working for Congressman George E. Brown, Jr. Frontiers of Illusion is the product of those years. Sarewitz’s work, spanning as it does a section of the Clinton years and a good economy, is refreshingly dour about science. Sarewitz is a believer in the "scientific method" (broadly defined) but not a believer in science as a method of solving political conundrums. "What types of scientific knowledge should society choose to pursue? How should such choices be made, and by whom? How should society apply this knowledge, once gained? How can "progress" in science and technology by defined and measured in the context of broader social and political goals?" (ix, Preface) To these questions "science" has no definitive answers. Sarewitz says: "the central concern of this book … has nothing to do with what science is and everything to do with what science does and can do once it emerges from the laboratory." (ix, Preface) Frontiers of Illusion may not tell us more than we already know – science can’t solve our problems, but as far as government funding goes, scientists have a serious stake in telling us otherwise – however, the work does so with the minimum of obfuscation, and with sufficient detail to be entertaining along the way.
Sarewitz dates symbolic of the end of basic physics research as national defense to the 1993 cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider project. It is a suitable place to begin exploring, defining, and exploding five key myths that dominated the last 50 years of science policy:
1. the myth of infinite benefitChapters Two through Six discuss these key policy myths, and Chapters Seven and Eight delineate their effects on society. His suggestions for a social and moral scientific policy conclude the book: we should link the publicly funded R&D laboratory to "the long-term goals and obligations of society." (15) Sarewitz closes with five parallel policy suggestions, which may be summed up as follows: "A new perspective must emerge in which science and technology are understood to be agents of context alteration, not merely simple steps upon which humanity seeks to ascend above the latest array of crises." (14)
2. the myth of unfettered research
3. the myth of accountability
4. the myth of authoritativeness
5. the myth of the endless frontier
What, then, are the governing myths of science policy? The infinite benefit myth runs like this: "if research and progress in science and technology are necessary for a better quality of life, then the more we spend on research, the better our quality of life will be." (18-19). Sarewitz cites the fictitious "science shortage crisis" to demonstrate that the group most likely to believe that they are required for social benefit are likewise most likely to be self-deceived about how many of them are required to create that benefit. Furthermore, it is not easy to determine what the general social rate of return will be on more investment in specific areas of science and technology. There are social costs (hazardous waste clean up, or the ineffective and expensive health care system, for example) which come with every advancement. "I cannot think of any field of research in physical science which does not ultimately lead, and usually very promptly, to new social problems....It is important, therefore, that competent social scientists should work hand in hand with the natural scientists, so that problems may be solved as they arise, and so that many of them may not arise in the first instance." (28-29). The myth of unfettered research is similar to the myth of infinite benefit. Only unfettered research – unfettered by directives from government or industry, fueled only by curiosity – is the correct and best way to pursue socially beneficially knowledge. Thus, the state is responsible for long-term basic research that does not necessarily offer "short term economic payback" (32) but that creates a reservoir of knowledge for all to use. Of course, there are indeed fetters to the research of scientists. More money is likely to go to the projects perceived to have the most value in defense of the nation, and research done for businesses, which must have practical and salable results. Sarewitz says, "there is, in essence, a basic research market, driven not only by the curiosity of talented scientists and the work of their predecessors but also by funding levels, job opportunities, public expectations, economic interests, and politics." (41) In addition, feminist research challenges another fetter, the male orientation of much research. Diversity allows paradigms to be challenged. "The claim that social context is irrelevant to basic research merely strengthens the prevailing context." (48)
The myths of infinite benefit and unfettered research prepare the way for a conflict in accountability. Scientists are accountable to two groups, the politicians who fund them, and their professional peers. The myth of accountability arises from a struggle between the requirements of these two groups. The science community expects a suitable grasp of the problem under consideration, accuracy and creativity in designing experiments, and timely and public release of results. Politicians have other fish to fry; they expect scientists to produce something of use for policy design within a certain time frame. With a bland irony Sarewitz suggests who might lose the struggle: "In general it can be expected that, when given the option, the research community will choose scientific criteria over societal ones in determining the overall direction of its work." (63) Sarewitz also notes that moral controversies are sometimes confused with a limitation of scientific freedom; current examples of this confusion include the use of DNA and fetal tissue. Unsurprisingly, the taxpaying public -- the ultimate consumers and patrons of science – are unwilling to accept social saviors who will not be questioned, who cannot be challenged. The myth of accountability in its turn sets up a false dichotomy between the ignorant public and the fact-based science community, creating the myth of authoritativeness. Sarewitz argues that science cannot truly tell policy-makers what to do; science is more like a map than a set of directions from point A to point B. Simply put, facts don't imply actions. "Whereas the myth of authoritative science suggests that scientific input can provide a rational basis for forging political consensus by separating ‘fact’ from ‘perception,’ (if only politicians and voters were educated enough to tell the difference), in practice the converse is generally the case: political controversy seems uniformly to inflame and deepen scientific controversy." (77) DNA fingerprinting and global climate change are instructive case studies in the problems of authoritativeness.
Incorporating all other myths is the governing myth of the endless frontier. The answer to problems yet unsolved is lying out there in the endless frontier: nature and its laws await discovery. Agreeing with Lynn White, Sarewitz believes that such a world view arises from a Christian- Baconian- Descartian perspective which encourages the impulse to understand, subdue, and reduce the world to its component parts. Vannevar Bush, Director of the wartime Office of Science Research and Development, is the author who crystallized the endless frontier myth in his 1945 Science the Endless Frontier. (And perhaps it is significant that these are the years of Frederick Jackson Turner’s publications on the American frontier?) Sarewitz begs to differ with Bush. "If scientific research can plausibly be described as value-neutral or premoral activity, it is because the force of scientific progress pushes society in the direction that it wants to go anyway, or at least is willing to go.…" (102) To put the matter another way, our "frontier" is only what is visible on our particular part of the globe.
Knowing that he spent his years before Washington looking at earthquake fault lines in Tadjikistan, it is not surprising that the third-world parts of the globe drive Sarewitz’s underlying concerns with US science policy. In chapters Seven and Eight he turns to some particular consequences of governing science policy myths. Research and development do lead to useful technical innovation, but the mediation of new processes is not 'innocent' of direction: the marketplace steers what can be done. Since 85 percent of the world’s wealth is stabilized in industrialized nations, which hold 20 percent of the world’s population, large pharmaceutical companies would rather address earaches than pneumonia – there’s more money in earaches. Thus, US science-supported economic growth does little to solve human problems worldwide. Furthermore, it is easier to commission a new scientific study than to acknowledge that the social problem is social and political in nature. Scientists in need of funding will generally be ready collaborate with politicians who wish to engage in this sort of persiflage. In this regard Sarewitz remarks: "the process by which society decides to adopt and use a given technology or material is intrinsically non-scientific -- it depends on the economic behavior of individuals or groups of individuals and the decisions they make about consumption and utility." (158)
Sarewitz closes with five policy suggestions: 1) expand the diversity
of viewpoints being funded in R&D; 2) put human society squarely in
the context of those scientific problems that are selected to be solved;
3) establish brokerage houses for scientific monitoring of projects (research
agenda) and delivery of information to politicians (policy agenda) 4) make
public opinion a part of research and development and create venues such
as exist in other countries, and; 5) address the issues facing the third
world. Don't just export technology; help locals collaborate with us on
knowledge and techniques that they can use. He offers one last suggestion,
or perhaps a new myth: close the endless frontier and move to a sustainable