In Retrospect: The Social Function of Science

Roger Pielke Jr assesses the legacy of J. D. Bernal’s science-policy classic on its 75th anniversary

In Retrospect: The Social Function of Science
by Roger Pielke Jr

Nature 507, 427–428 (27 March 2014) doi:10.1038/507427a

The Social Function of Science
J. D. Bernal George Routledge and Sons: 1939

In 2011 Tom Coburn, the Republican Senator for Oklahoma, issued a report focused on helping the US National Science Foundation to better conduct research that “can transform and improve our lives, advance our understanding of the world, and create meaningful new jobs”. It is ironic that this conservative Republican’s demands that research be carefully planned and focused on social objectives can be traced directly to the writings of an Irish-born communist crystallographer 75 years ago.

Such is the wholesale acceptance of John Desmond Bernal’s views in his 1939 treatise The Social Function of Science — covering the organization of research to science and its social role — that they are now part of the fabric of science-policy debates across the political spectrum. For Bernal, usefulness was more than an aspiration: it was the central objective of the scientific enterprise and the desired end of state support of science.

He was among the first to recognize that all public engagement is ultimately political, although his vision of scientists as stalwarts resisting partisan politics might now seem naive: “The scientist … sees the social, economic and political situation as a problem to which a solution must first be found and then applied, not as a battleground of personalities, careers and vested interests.”

Bernal was the first to compile estimates of government-wide spending on science, several years before the first gauges of gross domestic product in the early 1940s. On the basis of such estimates, he concluded presciently that the United States was poised to take a long-term leadership role in science. Today, much discussion of science policy (some would say too much) hinges on this kind of number-crunching; 75 years ago, it provided a fundamentally new lens through which to view the scientific enterprise.

Bernal was born in Ireland in 1901. His formative years were marked by the First World War and the 1917 Russian revolution, which, along with the Great Depression in the 1930s, had a lasting negative influence on his view of capitalism. After earning a degree in mathematics and science at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1922, Bernal did his postgraduate training in X-ray crystallography before joining the Cambridge faculty in 1927. He became part of Britain’s left-wing intellectual elite, joining zoologist Solly Zuckerman’s dining club Tots and Quots (a reference to Roman playwright Terence’s “Quot homines, tot sententiae”, meaning ‘so many men, so many opinions’) with biologists Julian Huxley and J. B. S. Haldane, among others. Zuckerman became Britain’s first chief scientific adviser in 1964.

Bernal started to write The Social Function of Science in 1938 after having “achieved a certain standing in the scientific community”, according to his biographer Andrew Brown (The Sage of Science; Oxford University Press, 2007). He was far from the first to explore the nexus of science and society. For instance, the theme of the 1936 meeting of the British Science Association was ‘Science and Social Welfare’, and in 1937 the American Association for the Advancement of Science added “an examination of the profound effects of science upon society” as one of its objectives. Even so, Bernal’s book helped to define a new discipline: the science of science.

The book was controversial for two reasons. First, Bernal was presenting a view of science that was directly at odds with the ‘pure science’ ideal, in which scientists were expected to keep their distance from public affairs. Second was Bernal’s vision of science fulfilling its social function by supporting a centrally planned society. He even stated that “science is communism” and argued that the Soviet Union “was one State where the proper function of science was being realized”. Read more …

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