No More Faith in Serendipity

Policy studies examines how scientific research is translated into social value. Throughout the Cold War the answer to this question was basically serendipity. In Science, the Endless Frontier, a 1945 manuscript presented to President Truman, Vannevar Bush (who led scientific R&D efforts during the war), argued that basic research is foundational to social progress. We know science will improve society, he argued, but we don’t know which research will lead to which improvements. There is no way to predict how things will turn out. So it is best to conduct as much basic research as possible, as widely as possible, trusting that somewhere down the line it will pay off. This faith in serendipity allowed scientists to wall off a narrow domain of responsibility: their job was to conduct good research as judged by their disciplinary peers and then “throw it over the wall” to society. What that research was subsequently used for was not their responsibility.

These are the institutional assumptions that philosophy also took on. What do we have in philosophy departments if not, in Bush’s words, “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity”? There is the same guiding assumption that somehow, somewhere down the line all those words in peer-reviewed academic philosophy journals will pay rewards to society.

But that faith is no longer good enough. At the federal level, budget cuts and a growing animosity toward the public sphere have led to Congressional attacks on individual research grants and even entire research programs (the fate of social science at the National Science Foundation hangs in the balance). This has also led to attempts to measure the broader impacts of research through the development of bibliometrics, patent analysis, and Altmetrics. But while such questions are a hot area of research across a number of fields, for the most part philosophers and other humanists still plod along with the serendipity model embedded within Mode 1 disciplinary research. They have not yet seen these changed conditions as an opportunity for interesting theoretical work that also holds the possibility of important practical outcomes.